Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 43

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

It was the quietest Elantine’s Day the Meridian Empire had ever witnessed. After a week of burning constellations and buildup, all of the empress’s birthday celebrations had been cancelled due to Elantine’s continued state of failing health. Her people had been informed of her illness that morning, and the entirety of Valenda was in a somber mood. Even the sun didn’t shine quite as bright; it seemed content to hide behind clouds. Only one corner of it peeked out, sending a ray of light into the room where Donatella Dragna sat with her sister, Scarlett.

For her part, the younger Dragna sister felt as if she’d entered a world where both her dreams and nightmares had collided.

She’d dreamed of her mother so many times. Usually it was nightmares where her mother had abandoned Tella all over again. But occasionally, Tella had dreams where her mother returned. It always happened the same way. Tella would be asleep in her dream, and then her mother would wake Tella with a tender kiss on the forehead. Tella’s eyes would flutter open, then her arms would fly around her mother’s neck, and indescribable joy would take over.

It always felt like the urge to cry mingled with the need to laugh; the kind of happiness that was almost painful. It pressed against Tella’s chest, making it hard to breathe and difficult to form words. And it should have been even more potent now that her mother was returned.

She lay atop Scarlett’s bed, as peaceful as a doomed damsel in distress, all pale cheeks, dark hair, and unnaturally red lips. Tella tried not to be concerned by the exaggerated colors of her mother’s lips and skin,

reminding herself that for years she’d been a painting on a card, not a woman.

Her mother was now free, and it was because of Tella. That victory alone should have given Tella wings to soar around the room, out the window, and over the glass courtyard below. But the idea of wings made Tella think of a pair of wings tattooed on a beautiful back. Which then conjured thoughts of the one person she wasn’t supposed to be thinking about. Legend.

Her veins heated at the thought of his name.

She had no idea where he’d gone after he’d left her on the steps outside of the Temple of the Stars. And she didn’t want to wonder about it. She didn’t want to replay every encounter she’d had with him, every word he’d said to her, every look he’d given her, or every kiss they’d shared. Each memory hurt, behind her eyes, in her lungs, and in her throat, growing uncomfortably tight whenever she recalled their last moment together.

It felt like weakness to keep thinking of him. Tella knew she’d have had to be completely unfeeling to have banished him from her thoughts after all they’d experienced. And Tella never wanted to be unfeeling. But she didn’t want to be consumed with him, either.

The only way to stop her thoughts of him was to keep focusing on her mother, who was there and would eventually wake up.

Tella was still stunned Jacks had kept his promise and returned Paloma to her. Maybe he was in love with Tella after all. She was his one true love. Although Tella imagined that being the object of a Fate’s affections was a dangerous thing. But she wasn’t worrying about the Fates for now. Jacks had made it clear that it would take the Fates longer than it would take her mother to wake up.

Tella wiped Paloma’s head with a cool cloth, not that it made any difference. Her mother didn’t have a fever. But Tella felt better if she was doing something.

“She doesn’t look as if she’s aged at all since she left,” Scarlett said. “It’s not natural.”

“I’m fairly certain nothing about being imprisoned in a card is natural,” Tella said.

This earned her a deeper frown.

As soon as the sisters had reached the palace the night before, Tella had fallen asleep in her sister’s bed. She’d woken up when Jacks had returned with her very unconscious mother. He hadn’t mentioned where he’d found her, but he’d let something slip about how she’d been trapped inside of a card and how Tella had made a great sacrifice to save her.

Tella had hoped this would be one of those occasions where her sister would choose to ignore the subject of their mother. But it’s rather difficult to ignore someone when they’re lying in the room looking cursed. Scarlett had questioned Tella relentlessly, until she’d confessed everything.

Scarlett had not handled most of it well, especially the bit about Tella taking their mother’s place inside of a card. After begging Tella never to risk something like that again, Scarlett had turned her anger on their mother; she couldn’t look at Paloma without scowling.

Tella couldn’t blame her sister. Underneath all the anger, Tella detected that Scarlett harbored a fair amount of guilt for being unaware of so many of the things that went on during Caraval, and that the game was very real this time. Though none of it was Scarlett’s fault. And surprisingly, Tella couldn’t bring herself to regret anything she’d done. Though she wished she hadn’t fallen so far for Legend, which thankfully her sister wasn’t mentioning.

Tella was curious to know if Julian had told Scarlett that Dante was Legend, since his identity seemed to be the one thing Tella was physically incapable of talking about. Scarlett had shared with Tella that she was giving Julian another chance. Sensitive to Tella’s current feelings about Legend and Caraval, Scarlett had not gone into too many details about it. But Tella imagined her sister wouldn’t have completely forgiven Julian unless he gave her more than a few smoldering looks and kisses, which made Tella suspect her sister was more aware of Legend’s true identity than she’d let on the night before.

“What if we play a game,” Tella suggested. “Do you have a deck of regular cards?” She opened the drawer of the nightstand next to Scarlett’s bed.

“Don’t!” Scarlett leaped up.

If she hadn’t reacted so strongly, Tella might have shut the drawer without looking too hard. But the minute Scarlett shouted, Tella’s interest intensified.

There was a book inside the drawer, a fancy red leather thing, with an equally fine-looking letter poking out from beneath it.

“What’s this?” Tella plucked the note from under the book. It was addressed to Scarlett. Tella didn’t recognize the return address but she was familiar with the name above it: Count Nicolas d’Arcy.

Tella sat there, speechless, because she didn’t think shouting was a good idea.

Scarlett’s entire face was pink. “I can explain.”

“I thought you were giving Julian another chance.” “I am. But I’m giving Nicolas a chance as well.”

“Nicolas? You’re now on a first-name basis with your former fiancé?” Tella desperately hoped her sister was joking, paying Tella back for all the secrets that she’d kept. Though if this was all true, the strained looks Scarlett and Jacks had shared in the garden now made sense. “Is this the person you asked Jacks to help you find?”

“Jacks told you I asked for his help?” Scarlett sounded surprised, as if she actually trusted the Prince of Hearts.

“I saw you step out of the same carriage as him the other night,” Tella said.

Scarlett brought her hands to her cheeks, covering her increasing blush. “I found him after you told me he’d been able to locate our mother. I’d been searching for Nicolas on my own, but I’d had no luck. And going to Jacks for help gave me an excuse to interrogate him about his intentions with you. Not that he was honest about anything.”

“I don’t think either of us can criticize anyone for being dishonest,” Tella snapped.

“I planned to tell you about Nicolas, but I was waiting for the right time.” Scarlett shot a look at their mother, a silent reminder that Scarlett was not the only one with secrets. “I wouldn’t have kept this from you, but I know you never liked him.”

“I still don’t. Exchanging letters with him is a mistake.”

“Don’t worry,” Scarlett said. “I’m not planning on marrying him. But I’d appreciate if you didn’t mention that to Julian. I think a little rivalry might be good for him.”

“So that’s what this is about?” Tella was more than a little stunned. “You want a competition between the count and Julian?”

“I wouldn’t call it a competition,” Scarlett said. “I don’t plan on giving either of them tasks to complete. But how can I truly know Julian is right for me if I have no one else to compare him to? I thought you’d be proud of me. You’re the one who always wanted me to make my own decisions.” Scarlett grinned, as sly as a cat who’d just learned to sneak out of a house and explore the world beyond.

Tella always thought her sister had underestimated her—but maybe she was the one who had underestimated Scarlett.

Tella still didn’t like the idea of the count. Even though she no longer trusted what the Aracle had shown her, she had a horrible feeling when it came to Count Nicolas d’Arcy. His letters had always seemed a little too perfect. He was the dictionary definition of a gentleman; no one was that polished in real life. Either he was terribly dull or a fraud. And yet, despite her reservations, Tella was proud of her sister for making such a bold choice. “Scarlett, I—”

Bells. Long and low and sorrowful bells rang across the palace.

Tella shuddered at the tragic sound, instantly forgetting whatever she’d been saying as the bells continued to cry. These were not clocks striking the hour. These were mourning bells, wailing out a song of loss.

In the bed, Tella’s mother stirred. She didn’t wake from her cursed slumber, but the bells had clearly disturbed her. In between the somber tune Tella heard a flurry of activity in the hall. Rushing footsteps. Chattering voices. More than a few unbridled sobs. And she knew.

Empress Elantine had died.

Tella had only met the empress twice, but she felt a surprising surge of emotion at the thought of her life ending, of her body going slack and her eyes closing forever.

Scarlett must not have been so certain, or she must have had no idea. She rose from her seat and opened the door right as a servant scurried by.

“What’s all the commotion?”

“Her Majesty passed away,” the servant confirmed. “They’re saying the new heir—her missing child—is now making his first appearance from the golden tower. Everyone is going into the glass courtyard to see. You can probably view the tower from your window.”

The maid darted off and Tella crossed the room to part the curtains of the largest window wider. Light streamed in, honey-thick and bright. The sun had made its way out from behind the clouds at last and seemed to be making up for the lazy job it had done that afternoon. With the mourning bells still ringing, it felt wrong for it to be shining so brightly, beaming over the entire courtyard, which was indeed filling with people.

“I can’t believe the empress is dead,” Scarlett said.

“You would have liked her,” Tella murmured. “She gave hugs the way I’d always wished our nana Anna had.”

“Nana actually gave you hugs?”

“Once,” Tella said. “Trust me, you weren’t missing anything.”

Tella had not cried when her nana Anna had died. Although the woman had made a little effort to raise her, Tella never felt any affection toward her. But Tella had liked the empress. Their acquaintance had been brief, but Elantine had shifted Tella’s course; if their paths had never crossed, Tella’s mother might still be trapped in a card.

Tella craned her neck as she looked past the glass courtyard toward the golden tower. Every window and balcony was open; from them maids and servants tossed black flower petals onto the gathering crowd below. The grim tribute was even sadder than the bells.

Only one balcony failed to rain down any flowers. Instead, this terrace flew royal-blue flags with the Meridian Empire’s bold white crest. In the center of it stood one figure.

Every hair on Tella’s body stood at attention when she saw him.

Tella could not clearly make out his face, but she could see his top hat.

Sharp and black and unmistakably Legend.

That blackguard.

Tella knew Legend was full of secrets, but this was one she’d not even considered. He was posing as Elantine’s missing child. This was why he’d

left her on the steps right as the fireworks had begun; he’d gone off to watch them with the empress. Although Tella imagined he would have left her anyway.

It was so inappropriate, but Tella couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up inside her. She’d thought she was the key to his entire game. But, of course, Legend was playing more than one game. He hadn’t come to Valenda merely to destroy the Fates and take all their powers for himself. He’d chosen this city as his game board so he could claim the throne.

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