Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 37

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

The stars were spectacularly fiery that night, lighting all of Valenda with their splendor and shimmer. Legend had wrangled them into the shape of a giant hourglass. It glowed desert-gold and scorching red, dripping crimson stars like grains of sands, no doubt counting down until dawn and the end of Caraval.

The hourglass hung suspended above the palace, where the last night of the game was taking place. Tella had glimpsed it when she’d looked out of her window. The glass courtyard below, which filled the space between the golden tower and the other wings of the palace, was beginning to fill with people costumed to look like the accursed Fates.

Thankfully none of the game players were allowed inside the tower. The ancient structure was almost eerily quiet. Tella could only hear the patter of her footfalls against the rickety wooden stairs as she climbed up, up, up.

During their dinner the other evening, Elantine had mentioned watching the Elantine’s Eve fireworks from the highest floor. She’d even told Jacks she hoped Tella would join them for the show. It wasn’t an actual invitation, and Jacks had never mentioned it again, but Tella hoped the empress had meant it.

Guards stopped her at the top. There must have been a dozen of them, their armor clanging loud and harsh as they blocked Tella’s path.

Her legs burned from climbing, but she managed to stand up straight and speak without gasping. “I’m engaged to the heir, and Her Majesty has invited me to watch the fireworks with her this evening.” Tella flashed her

letter from Elantine, showing off the royal seal as if it were an invitation. But it wasn’t needed.

The guards parted ranks for Tella as if they’d been expecting her. She wondered if it was because the empress’s invitation to watch the fireworks had been genuine, or if the empress had known that her letter would draw Tella here. She was done letting fate or the Fates dictate her future, but something about this meeting with Elantine felt inevitable.

The top of the tower was much narrower than the bottom, just one room, not particularly large, and yet later she would remember it as endless. The walls and ceiling were formed of seamless glass, an observatory built for watching and dreaming and wishing. Legend’s churning hourglass was so close Tella swore she could hear the stars falling inside of it, hissing and sparking out a dangerous song as Tella ventured farther in.

The suite itself was simple elegance. An ash-white tree grew in the middle, full of silver leaves that looked as if they were on the verge of falling. Surrounding it was a circle of tufted lounges, all looking out toward the pristine glass, silver and white, just like the tree. The only spot of bold color in the room came from the bouquet of red roses in the vase next to Elantine.

The empress lounged on a seat so close to the windows it nearly touched the glass. She didn’t appear to be in costume, though there was something ghostly about her and it wasn’t merely the white gown she wore.

Two nights ago when Tella had met her, Empress Elantine had been the definition of lively, brimming with smiles and hugs. But perhaps she’d given away too many. Now she slumped against her chair, waxen and sickly, exactly like the overeager maid had said.

Even Elantine’s voice sounded feverish when she spoke. “You climbed all this way, my dear, you may as well ask the question burning your tongue.”

“What happened to you?” Tella blurted.

Elantine looked up. Her dark eyes were larger than Tella remembered, or perhaps her face had become thinner. Elantine looked as if she’d aged two decades in two days. Tella swore the woman grew even older as she sat there. Fresh wrinkles formed across her pallid cheeks as she said, “It’s

called dying, my dear. Why do you think I wanted to have such a magnificent seventy-fifth birthday celebration?”

“But—but you looked so well the other night.”

“A tonic from Legend.” Elantine’s eyes cut to the red roses on the table beside her. “He’s been helping me hide my failing health from Jacks.”

“So you’ve met Legend?”

A wrinkled smile moved the empress’s mouth. “After all his help, even if I knew who Legend was, I would not betray his secret. And I don’t think you climbed up all this way to ask about him.”

Elantine’s gaze dropped to the letter in Tella’s hand.

Tella still wanted to question the empress more about Legend, who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.

But even though Elantine was dying, when she spoke again, her tone was sharp enough to cut out any arguments. “Paradise the Lost is your mother, isn’t she?”

“I knew her as Paloma,” Tella confessed, “though my father always got upset when I called her that instead of Mother.”

Elantine clucked her tongue. “Paradise had such unfortunate taste in men.”

Tella would have agreed, but she didn’t feel like talking any more about her father.

“How did you know her?” Tella asked as she took a seat. She still didn’t know all the proper etiquette as to how to treat an empress, but it felt odd to look down on the woman who ruled all of the Meridian Empire.

Elantine took a deep breath, her body shaking more than it should have at the exertion. “The last time I saw Paradise, she was stealing the Deck of Destiny I mentioned the other night. I warned her the cards would only bring trouble, but I should have chosen a different word. Like misery or agony. Paradise merely said she loved trouble. But I believe what she really loved was life.”

Elantine gazed out the window, where Legend’s crimson stars continued to shine on the game below. “Paradise could have been so much more than a picture in a Wanted poster shop. She was intelligent and clever, quick to laugh, and to love. Though she tried not to let people know how deeply her

feelings went. ‘Criminals don’t love,’ she once told me. But I think Paradise was afraid of love because when she loved, she did it as fiercely as she lived.”

Tella imagined this was all supposed to make her feel better, yet somehow it only hurt more to know her mother could love so intensely, and yet she didn’t even care about her own daughter.

Tella should have walked away and stopped torturing herself. But there was something almost intimate about the empress’s knowledge. Her two sentences alone felt so much deeper than almost everything Aiko had shared. Tella had heard Elantine was wild in her youth, but she would not have been a youth at the same time as Tella’s mother.

“How did you meet her?” Tella asked.

The empress slowly turned back to Tella. “That’s a story you’ll have to ask Paradise.”

“I don’t think that will be happening.” Tella slowly rose from her seat. “This is where my search for her ends.”

“Pity,” Elantine said, “I didn’t think you were the sort who quit so easily.”

“She gave up on me first.”

“I’m not sure I can believe that.” Elantine’s voice went soft. Tella might have thought it was from fatigue, but there was nothing weak about it. “The Paradise I knew didn’t believe in quitting. And if you really are her daughter, then I’m certain she would not have quit on you. In fact, I imagine that if she was your mother, she loved you very deeply.”

Tella snorted.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” Elantine said. “I’m sure there’s a law that says you cannot mock your empress to her face. But I imagine what you just did has more to do with your mother than with me. And, I’ll admit, I suspect my child feels the same way about me as you feel about your mother. I was also a failure as a parent. I made mistakes that meant I was parted from my child for a long time. But that didn’t mean I didn’t love my child. So many of the choices I made that I believed were for the best only served to tear us apart.”

“But I’ve heard your missing child has returned.”

“I forgot how quickly news spreads in this palace.” Elantine smiled, but somehow the expression made her eyes look sad instead of happy. As her wrinkled lips tipped up, her eyelids drooped. This was not the expression of a mother who’d just been reunited with her child.

But the empress was not dismissing the rumors. It made Tella wonder if this person who’d come forward was really Elantine’s child, or just a way to prevent Jacks from taking the throne now that Elantine was dying.

“For most of my life I put the Meridian Empire above everything, even my child. I now regret so many of those choices, but it’s too late to change what I’ve done. I suppose that’s why I was thinking of you this morning.” The sorrow in Elantine’s eyes intensified. “I don’t know what happened to your mother after she left you, but I hope you find her, Donatella. Don’t be like me and settle for the ease of an almost-ending, when you could have the true ending.”

“I’m not sure I understand what that even means,” Tella said.

“Not everyone gets a true ending. There are two types of endings because most people give up at the part of the story where things are the worst, where the situation feels hopeless. But that’s when hope is needed most. Only those who persevere can find their true ending.”

Elantine smiled, more happy than sad this time, as she peered down at Tella’s hand. “Look. I believe even your mother’s ring agrees.”

Tella jolted backward as the opal on her finger pulsed. The colors inside it were moving. The gold line in the center burst like a flame inside the stone, devouring the violet and cherry around its edges until the entire gemstone blazed luminescent amber.

The tower rocked, shaking Tella’s legs. It lasted only a second. But Tella swore that in that moment even the stars outside blinked. The ring had always been pretty, but now it was otherworldly, glowing bright enough to light up her entire hand.

What had Dante done?

White-hot panic moved through Tella’s veins. He must have found the loophole around the ring’s curse. Why did he have to do that for her? He’d said not to worry, that he wasn’t that selfless, but he must have paid a price for the stone to become un-cursed.

Tella trembled and the crown on her head wobbled. She reached up to steady it. But her hand was as shaky as her legs. Instead of righting the crown she knocked it over. It tumbled and hit the ground with a lyrical crash.

“Oh my.” Elantine placed a hand over her mouth.

Tella swallowed a curse. Five sharp pieces of obsidian, tipped in gleaming black opals, stared at her from the floor. It was now a mirror image of the Shattered Crown.

Tella’s voice shook as she said, “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be, child. I have people who can clean that up for me, and you’ve done nothing wrong.”

But Tella would do something wrong.

Still trembling, she stared at the shattered crown on the floor as her impossible choice became far too clear. Dante had found a way for Tella to get inside her mother’s vault that would require no sacrifice on Tella’s part. Of course, Tella didn’t know if Dante had done it to save her from the stars, or to ensure she’d get the cards. Tella wasn’t even sure which one she wanted to be true. If Dante had sacrificed something to save Tella, what kind of person would she be if she then betrayed him to Jacks? But that was assuming Dante was Legend. Tella still didn’t know who Legend was.

And she wouldn’t know if she didn’t win the game. But maybe it would be better not to win the game.

Winning the game will come at a cost you will later regret. Nigel had warned Tella of this, though even if he hadn’t, she knew regrets were in her future. If she chose to betray Legend to Jacks so that Jacks could take Legend’s power, Jacks would free the Fates and most likely destroy Legend in the process. But, if Tella didn’t betray Legend, if she gave him the cards with the Fates, he would destroy them. In doing so, Legend would destroy her mother as well, since all the cards were connected.

Tella’s gaze traveled out the window. From so high up the people below were little more than specks of color, lit by the churning stars, the brilliant lanterns, and all the feverish excitement for the last night of Caraval and Elantine’s Eve.

In another story Tella might have gone down there and joined them. She might have drunk spiced wine and danced with strangers. Maybe she’d have even kissed someone beneath the stars. It should have been what she wanted. She told herself to want it. To walk away from the separate game she’d been thrust into and the woman who’d walked away from her. To stop pretending her mother cared. But Elantine’s words about true endings and almost-endings continued to torment Tella.

She wanted to turn her back on her mother, but it felt more like giving up than letting go, settling for less when she had a chance at so much more. Tella didn’t want to let her mother hurt her again. But what if Elantine was right and her mother really had loved her?

Tella’s mother had placed the cards in the stars’ vaults so that no one could get to them. Maybe her mother had never planned on touching them again either. What if she’d offered Tella to the stars, but she’d never intended to give Tella away? Maybe locking the cards in a vault that could only be opened by a cursed key had been Paloma’s way to keep them safe. But then somehow her mother had ended up trapped in a card.

Tella didn’t know when she left the tower—but suddenly she was running down the stairs, rushing toward the courtyard where Caraval was taking place, thinking only of her mother.

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