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Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 24

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

Aiko’s cursed notebook was now firmly shut, but Tella swore it looked fatter than before. There was even a soft glow about it.

What had she taken?

“Don’t look so glum,” Aiko said. “You’ve just earned a fantastic story about one of Valenda’s most infamous criminals.”

Aiko glided back toward the portraits on the wall. “Before she disappeared, Paradise the Lost was a bit of a legend in this city. People were so enchanted with Paradise, they used to write her letters and ask her to rob them or kidnap them. Paradise the Lost was truly criminal royalty. There were even rumors of princes from other continents sending letters to the lords of the Spice Quarter offering to marry her.”

As Aiko spoke, Tella tried to hold on to her anger and frustration at losing one of her memories, but instead she began to picture her mother, as clear as if Aiko were painting the scene in her evil notebook. Tella saw Paloma as a young and spirited thing, leaving trails of glittering tales as she robbed and thieved and stole her way into history until she became a shimmering part of it.

Then she’d married Tella’s father. Out of all the people Paloma could have chosen.

“Why didn’t Paradise accept any of the princes’ offers?” Tella asked.

“I assume she was smart enough to know most princes are cruel, spoiled, selfish beings. And Paradise wanted adventures far more than she desired love. She bragged there was nothing she couldn’t steal. So when she was presented with a challenge, to steal an unstealable item of great magic, she

accepted the offer. But the item was far more powerful and dangerous than she’d been led to believe. She didn’t want to put it back and risk that someone else would take it, so she fled, and no one has seen her since.”

But Tella had.

Now it made more sense that she’d ended up on Trisda with Tella’s father. No one would have searched for her on a smallish, unremarkable conquered isle.

“What was the object she stole?” “If you want the answer to that—”

“No,” Tella interrupted, steel in her tone. “No more deals. I already earned this answer, it’s a part of the story.”

Aiko’s nostrils flared, her usually placid expression pulsing with frustration; clearly she was used to taking more than giving.

Tella snatched Aiko’s enchanted notebook off the table and held it over a burning candle. “Tell me what she stole or this notebook turns to ash.”

Aiko gave her a thin smile. “You have more mettle than your sister.” “Scarlett and I each have different strengths. Now tell me what the object

was.” Tella slowly lowered the notebook closer to the flame until she could smell the heating leather.

“It’s a cursed Deck of Destiny,” Aiko spat out.

Tella dropped Aiko’s book on the desk with a loud thump. All around her posters flapped, as if their paper heartbeats were racing along with Tella’s; it was the fastest her heart had beat since Jacks had kissed her. As if this new revelation possessed magic of its own.

Only the portrait of Paradise the Lost remained unmoved, the calm center of a paper storm.

Tella knew pictures did not have feelings, yet she imagined the portrait of Paradise, the woman her mother had once been, was holding its breath, silently hoping and urging Tella to put all the pieces of her story together.

Tella had always known her mother’s Deck of Destiny was unlike other ordinary decks. But Aiko made it sound as if there was nothing else in the world like it, and she’d called it cursed.

Cursed. Cursed. Cursed.

The word grew louder in Tella’s head, warring with the sound of the posters still flapping on the walls. The Fates had also been cursed by a witch, and according to Jacks, this curse had imprisoned them inside a deck of cards.

I can tell you from experience it’s torturous, he’d said.

It seemed spectacular to believe that her mother had stolen this same deck, but the more Tella thought about it, the more sense it made.

If her mother’s Deck of Destiny had been the one imprisoning the Fates, it explained why her mother had been terrified to find Tella playing with the cards. Tella remembered how they’d been disguised as a foul-smelling sachet until that day. The spell concealing them must have been wearing off when Tella found them.

Tella couldn’t believe she’d touched the deck holding all the Fates—the mythic Fates who’d once ruled the world had been in the palm of her hand.

It seemed impossible, and yet she’d witnessed the proof every time the Aracle had shown Tella images of the future. She’d never seen another card like it, and she doubted she ever would. Because it wasn’t merely a card. It was a Fate, and Tella had it tucked inside of a little trunk.

She squeaked out a laugh at the thought. Her mother must have been a force, to steal the Fates.

But now her mother was powerless, trapped inside of a card, exactly like the Fates.

Tella did not laugh at this thought. Suddenly she regretted having laughed at all.

Since the miserable day her mother had left, Tella had believed it was partially her fault, that if she hadn’t disobeyed her mother and played with her jewelry box, and if she’d never flipped over the card with the Maiden Death, which predicted the loss of a loved one, then her mother would have never vanished. Tella blamed the cards and herself. And she had been right, though not in the way she’d always believed.

Her mother hadn’t left merely because Tella had turned over a particular card; she’d fled because Tella had found the cards, and the cards were even more powerful and dangerous than Tella had ever imagined.

The posters on the walls finally stopped flapping. In their wake the shop went suddenly quiet. Yet Tella still felt the stare of her mother’s poster, giving Tella the feeling that despite what she’d just learned, she didn’t know nearly enough. There was something vital she was leaving out— something she’d forgotten.

“You look as if you have another question,” Aiko said.

Tella had briefly forgotten the other girl was there, and why Tella was really there as well. She still needed to find the third clue, or her mother would stay trapped just like the Fates. Tella didn’t think this was the something she’d forgotten, but whatever she couldn’t remember couldn’t have been as important as this.

Tella pulled out the second clue once more.

 

The goal of this game is not what you think, to find the truth seek the woman

OF PARCHMENT AND INK.

She alone holds the next clue, which was left only for you.

 

Tella’s eyes went from the clue to her mother’s Wanted poster.

What if the clue wasn’t referring to the woman who drew the pictures, like Tella had first thought? What if it was referring to a woman on one of them, like Paradise the Lost? Her rendering was made of parchment and ink. And her picture spoke to Tella in a way that it could not have called to anyone else playing the game.

Tella hopped up on her tiptoes and ripped the poster from the wall.

She’d expected a protest from Aiko, but the girl appeared almost as eager as Tella felt when Tella flipped over the parchment and discovered lines of silvery writing on the back.

If you’ve found this you’re on the true track, but it’s still not too late to turn back.

Clues can no longer tell you where to head;

to find the object Legend needs, your heart must lead instead.

The only thing in her heart was her mother, whom Legend must have known about since he’d written the clue on the back of her poster. But what did her mother have to do with Caraval?

Her mother had possessed the deck imprisoning all the Fates, and Legend wanted to destroy all the Fates. Maybe her mother had also stolen the object capable of destroying the Fates? But if she had, why—

No. Tella pushed the thought away. Believing the game was real was the quickest path to madness. And yet maybe Tella was already going mad, because she was no longer certain what she believed anymore.

Tella needed to figure out the truth before she proceeded. She needed to talk to Scarlett. Scarlett would help her sort everything out, especially if Tella’s earlier suspicions about her sister were right and Scarlett knew more about the game than she’d been letting on.

Tella started for the door.

“Before you go,” Aiko said, “you should hear the rest of Paradise’s story.”

“I think I know how it ends,” Tella said.

“What you know is merely the almost-ending; the true ending has yet to be written.”

“Then what’s left to say?”

“I kept a part out of the middle of the story. Paradise discovered the deck’s true power and danger after using it to read her future. Some said she fled, not to keep the cards safe, but to thwart the future she saw. What she didn’t know was that with this particular deck, once a future is foretold, it cannot be undone unless the cards are destroyed.”

“Thank you, but I think it might be a little late for that warning.” Aiko’s expression went suddenly somber.

Tella felt it then. Wetter than tears dripping down cheeks. It pooled in her ears before trickling down her lobes to her cool neck.

Blood.

Thick and warm and awful.

Her heart choked on a beat, and then skipped over several more, dizzying her head and robbing her of breath. Her hand pressed against the nearest wall to keep herself from falling. The blood she’d lost at Minerva’s was a trickle compared to this. It oozed from her ears onto her bodice in thick crimson streams. Another reminder from the Prince of Hearts that she was not playing this game for fun.

* * *

Tella journeyed back to the palace in a blur of damp sounds and hemorrhaging ears. Even after the bleeding stopped she continued to feel weak. Her heart had never beat so slowly.

Beat … Nothing. Beat … Nothing. Beat … Nothing.

Soon all that would be left was nothing.

She’d bought a cheap cloak from a vendor on the street. But once she returned to the palace she swore every servant and guard could see her bloodstained bodice through the cloak.

Even after washing and changing into a dress from Minerva’s formed of wild layers of elegant topaz-blue fabrics, all Tella felt was the dry blood inside her ears. It must have been cursed just like her, for she’d not been able to completely wash its stains from her neck or hands. She would have soaked her skin until the blood finally left, but she only allowed herself to rest in the tub’s scented waters until some of her strength returned. She needed to talk to Scarlett about their mother’s criminal past, and Caraval.

Tella put on Dante’s gloves to cover up the stains and set out from the tower. She’d lost track of time, but she imagined it was well after midnight by the time she reached the sapphire wing where Scarlett was staying. Inside all the blues appeared gloriously gilded. A lone servant girl flitted about, checking on and refreshing oversize sconces filled with candles as

thick as arms. She didn’t say a word to Tella, but Tella felt her watching as she made her way to her sister’s room.

But Scarlett didn’t answer.

Tella knocked louder in case she was asleep. Silence.

Tella rattled the door handle, hoping to possibly frighten her sister awake, but nothing happened. Either she was lost in a deep dreaming sleep, or Scarlett still wasn’t there. But she should have been there. It was the middle of the night and Scarlett wasn’t playing the game. Scarlett should have been back from wherever she’d gone by now.

Tella crossed the hall to the young, freckled servant, who was either shamelessly eavesdropping on Tella or relighting a very stubborn candle.

“How can I help you?” said the girl, turning from her task before Tella could so much as clear her throat. Definitely an eavesdropper, and far bolder than most of the mousy servants Tella had encountered.

The servant leaned closer.

Tella flinched back, but the freckled girl wasn’t noticing any flecks of dried blood staining Tella’s neck.

“If you’re searching for the handsome performer with all the tattoos, I can tell you when he comes back. He didn’t leave with the others.” The servant’s eager eyes went bright in a way that Tella was unfortunately familiar with.

“I’m sorry,” Tella said, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Don’t worry.” The girl gave a high-pitched titter. “I know you’re engaged, I won’t tell anyone you were looking for him.”

Which meant she would probably tell everyone. But Tella had greater concerns at the moment.

“I’m actually searching for my sister.” She pointed back toward Scarlett’s room. “Her name is Scarlett. She’s tallish, with thick brown hair and—”

“I know who she is,” the girl cut in. “I haven’t seen her since yesterday.” Some of the color left the girl’s cheeks as she dropped her voice to a whisper. “I heard her ask someone for directions to Idyllwild Castle, but she never came back.”

Idyllwild Castle was Jacks’s castle. Tella could not think of a single good reason her sister would go there.

“Of course, I’m sure nothing horrible has happened to your sister,” the freckled servant added hastily, as if suddenly remembering who she was speaking with. “I don’t believe all the stories about the heir. I know how people like to talk.”

“And what do people say?” Tella asked.

“Just that he murdered his last fiancée. But they also say he’s very handsome,” she tacked on, as if that made up for murder. “Lots of the other servants say they’d still marry him.”

Tella wanted to say they were fools. She wanted to brush back her hair and scare the girl with the blood still staining her ears and her neck. But Scarlett was missing. Rather than frightening servants, Tella needed to use her waning energy to find her sister.

She tossed the freckled girl a coin, but even that simple act felt weaker than it should have. The coin barely flipped in the air.

When Tella reached the carriage house, bells tolled three in the morning. Time was moving too fast and she was moving too slow. Her floating carriage seemed to be taking longer than necessary as well, gliding sluggishly across the starlit sky.

Legend’s blue constellations were still everywhere, except for above Idyllwild Castle, as if warning her not to go there.

On the night of the Fated Ball the castle looked like something stolen from a young girl’s fantasy. But after Tella left her carriage and reached the stony stronghold, she wondered if the castle’s gleaming white sandstone exterior had been a costume, an illusion put on by Legend. Tonight the stones looked as dark as kept secrets, lit by dim red-orange torches that appeared to be losing their battle against the night.

She halted to catch her breath at the edge of the bridge, grateful she’d brought along Dante’s gloves. Not that she saw any threats. In fact, if anything, the castle was too still.

Aside from the wind knotting her hair and ruffling the layers of her wild topaz skirts, everything was steeped in quiet. The sort of silence usually reserved for tombs, cursed ruins, and other places abandoned by the living.

Tella suppressed a shudder but it managed to turn into a chill. She wasn’t afraid of danger, though she preferred it in the form of swaggering young men. For the second time that night she found herself wishing that Dante had followed her.

Not that she needed him.

But maybe Tella wanted him there just a little. She took a heavy step forward and felt an uncomfortable stab of lackluster victory that he’d finally decided to leave her alone. She’d known he’d only been following her as part of his role, and even if his interest had been real, she had no doubts he’d give up on her eventually. Everyone gave up on her, except for Scarlett

—who couldn’t seem to stop caring about Tella.

Tella supposed it was another thing the sisters had in common—never knowing when to walk away. Maybe if Tella had a better sense of when to abandon an ill-fated pursuit she’d have turned around just then, or she’d have questioned if the freckled servant really had told the truth when she’d claimed Scarlett never returned from the castle—a castle that now looked emptier than a broken doll’s eyes.

The bridge leading to it was even narrower than Tella remembered, taller, too, towering above black waters that weren’t quite so still as the first night she’d visited. But Tella remembered what Dante had told her and refused to think about Death this time, unwilling to give him additional power.

Her steps were more unsteady than usual and her breathing was on the labored side, but she was not going to fall, or jump, or do anything else that would land her in the treacherous waters beneath. She was going to reach the end, knock on the door, and retrieve her sister. If Scarlett was there.

Tella finished crossing the bridge. For a slow heartbeat she swore she heard phantom footsteps, but there was not a guard or ghoul in sight.

Fisting her hands, she focused her strength and knocked against the heavy iron doors.

“Hello!” she started out cheerfully. Nothing.

“Is anyone here?” she called a little sharper. More waves crashed below.

“This is Donatella Dragna, the heir’s fiancée!”

Her breath went short as her unanswered knocks turned aggressive. “Careful, or you might hurt yourself doing that.”

Tella slowly turned around, half expecting Jacks to be there, gracefully biting into an apple.

Instead, there were three others.

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