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Caraval: Part 1: Chapter 6


Scarlett woke with the feeling she’d lost something significant. Unlike most days, where her eyes opened reluctantly and she took her time stretching each limb before easing out of bed and cautiously looking around, on this day, Scarlett sat up the moment her eyes flickered open.

Beneath her, the world rocked.

“Careful, there.” Julian steadied her, reaching out to catch her before she tried to stand up in the boat—if the tiny tub they were in could properly be called a boat. A raft was a more appropriate name. It was barely large enough for the two of them.

“How long have I been asleep?” Scarlett gripped the edges of the vessel as the rest of her surroundings came into focus.

Across from her, Julian dipped two oars into the water, careful not to splash her, as he rowed through an unfamiliar sea. The water almost looked pink, with small swirls of turquoise that swelled as the copper sun crept higher into the sky.

It was morning, although Scarlett imagined more than one dawn had passed while she’d slept. Julian’s face had been smooth when she’d last seen him, but now his jaw and chin appeared to be covered in at least two days of dark stubble. He looked even more disreputable than when he’d flashed that wolfish grin on the beach.

“You blackguard!” Scarlett slapped him in the face.

“Ow! What was that for?” A ruby welt bloomed across his cheek. The color of rage and punishment.

Horror filled Scarlett at what she had done. On occasion she had trouble taming her tongue, but she’d never struck another person. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!” She clutched the edges of her bench, bracing for him to strike back.

But the hit she expected never came.

Julian’s cheek was a blaze of angry red, his jaw nothing but a series of tight lines, yet he didn’t touch her.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me. I’ve never hit a woman.” He stopped rowing and looked her in the eyes. Unlike the come-hither gaze he’d worn inside the barrel room, or the predatory look she’d seen on the beach, he now made no attempts to charm or scare her. Beneath his hard appearance, Scarlett could see the ghost of the expression he’d worn as he had watched her father strike Tella. Julian had looked as appalled as Scarlett had been terrified.

On his cheek, the imprint of her hand was fading, and as it disappeared Scarlett could feel some of her terror slip away. Not everyone reacted like her father.

Scarlett’s fingers unclenched from the sides of the boat, though her hands still felt a little shaky.

“I’m sorry,” she managed again. “But you and Tella should have never—wait.” Scarlett stopped. The awful feeling she’d lost something vital flooded back. And that something had honey-blond hair and a cherub’s face with a devil’s grin. “Where is Tella?”

Julian dipped his oars back in the water, and this time he did splash Scarlett. Icy drops of wet sprayed all over her lap.

“If you’ve done something to Tella, I swear—”

“Relax, Crimson—”

“It’s Scarlett.”

“Same difference. And your sister is fine. You’ll find her on the isle.” Julian tipped an oar toward their destination.

Scarlett was prepared to keep arguing, but when her eyes caught sight of where the sailor pointed, whatever she intended to say melted like warm butter on top of her tongue.

The isle on the horizon looked nothing like her familiar Trisda. Where Trisda was black sand, rocky coves, and sickly looking shrubs, this bit of earth was lush and alive. Glittering mist swirled around vibrant green mountains—all covered in trees—that rose toward the sky as if they were massive emeralds. From the top of the largest peak an iridescent blue waterfall streamed down like melted peacock feathers, disappearing into the ring of sunrise-tinted clouds that pirouetted around the surreal isle.

Isla de los Sueños.

The island of dreams. Scarlett had never heard of the isle before seeing its name on the tickets to Caraval, yet she knew without asking that she stared at it now. Legend’s private island.

“You’re lucky you slept on the way here. The rest of our voyage wasn’t this scenic.” Julian said it as if he’d done her a favor. Yet no matter how beguiling this isle was, thoughts of another isle weighed heavy on her mind.

“How far are we from Trisda?” she asked.

“We’re somewhere between the Conquered Isles and the Southern Empire,” Julian answered lazily, as if they were merely strolling on the beach next to her father’s estate.

In reality, this was the farthest she’d ever been away from home. Scarlett’s eyes stung as a spray of salt water hit them. “How many days have we been gone?”

“It’s the thirteenth. But before you hit me again, you should know your sister bought you time by making it seem as if both of you were kidnapped.”

Scarlett recalled the destructive way Tella had gone through all her things, leaving her room in shambles. “That’s why my room was such a mess?”

“She also left a ransom note,” Julian added. “So, when you return, you should be able to wed your count and live happily ever after.”

Scarlett admitted her sister was clever. But if their father figured out the truth, he’d be livid—especially with her wedding only a week away. The image of a purple, fire-breathing dragon came to mind, coating her vision with ashy shades of anxiety.

But maybe a visit to this isle is worth the risk. The wind seemed to whisper the words, reminding her that the thirteenth was also the date on Legend’s invitation. Anyone who arrives later than this will not be able to participate in the game, or win this year’s prize of one wish.

Scarlett tried not to be enticed, but the child inside her drank in this new world greedily. The colors here were brighter, thicker, sharper; in comparison, every hue she’d seen before seemed thin and malnourished.

The clouds took on a baked bronze glimmer the closer they drew to the isle, as if they were on the edge of catching fire rather than expelling rain. It made her think of Caraval Master Legend’s letter, how its gilded edges almost seemed to flame when they captured the light. She knew she needed to return home immediately, but the promise of what she might find on Legend’s private isle tempted her, like those precious early morning moments, when Scarlett could either wake up and face the ruthless reality of day, or keep her eyes closed and continue to dream of lovely things.

But beauty could be deceiving, as evidenced by the boy who sat across from her, rowing their raft smoothly through the water, as if kidnapping girls was something he did every day.

“Why is Tella already on the isle?” Scarlett asked.

“Because this boat only holds two at a time.” Julian splashed Scarlett again with his oar. “You should be grateful I came back for you after I dropped her off.”

“I never asked you to take me in the first place.”

“But you did spend seven years writing to Legend?”

Heat rose to Scarlett’s cheeks. Not only had those letters been something private she’d shared solely with Tella, but the mocking way Julian said Legend’s name made Scarlett feel foolish, as indeed she had been for so many years. A child who’d yet to realize that most fairy tales did not end happily.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Julian said. “I’m sure lots of young women write him letters. You’ve probably heard that he never ages. And I’ve heard he has a way of making people fall in love with him.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Scarlett argued. “There was nothing romantic about my letters. I just wanted to experience the magic.”

Julian narrowed his eyes as if he didn’t believe her. “If that’s true, why don’t you want it anymore?”

“I don’t know what else my sister has told you, but I would think you saw what was at stake the other day in the barrel room. When I was younger, I wanted to experience Caraval. Now I just want my sister and me to be safe.”

“Don’t you think your sister wants the same thing?” Julian stopped rowing and let the boat drift over a gentle wave. “I may not know her well, but I don’t think she has a death wish.”

Scarlett disagreed.

“I think you’ve forgotten how to live, and your sister is trying to remind you,” Julian went on. “But if all you want is safety, I’ll take you back.”

Julian nodded to a speck in the distance that resembled a smallish fishing boat. Most likely the vessel they’d used to travel there, since their current raft was obviously not built to combat the seas.

“Even if you don’t know two coins about sailing, it shouldn’t take you long to get picked up by someone else and returned to your precious Trisda. Or”—Julian paused and nodded toward the misty white isle—“if you’re as brave as your sister keeps telling me, you can let me keep rowing. You spend this week with her on this isle, and see if she’s right about some things being worth more than safety.”

A wave rocked the boat, lapping turquoise water against its sides as they drifted into the isle’s ring of chilly clouds. Scarlett’s hair stuck to the back of her neck as Julian’s dark locks curled into waves.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “If I wait to go back to Trisda, my father will destroy me. I’m supposed to wed a count in one week, and this marriage is our opportunity at another life. I’d love to experience Caraval, but I’m not willing to risk my only chance at happiness.”

“That’s a very dramatic way of looking at things.” The side of Julian’s mouth twitched, as if he were suppressing a smirk. “I might be wrong, but most marriages aren’t pure bliss.”

“That’s not what I said.” Scarlett hated how he kept twisting her words.

Julian dipped his oar in the water, just enough to splash her again.

“Stop doing that!”

“I’ll stop when you tell me where you want to go.” He splashed her once more as the boat sailed closer to the shore, and the brassy clouds began to tarnish, turning shades of green and chilly blue.

There was a scent in the air Scarlett had never experienced. Trisda always stank of fish, but the air here was mostly sweet with a bit of tangy citrus. She wondered if it was drugged, for although she knew what she needed to do—get to the isle, find Tella, and then return home as soon as possible—she was having a difficult time telling Julian this. Suddenly she was nine years old again, naive and hopeful enough to believe a letter could make her wishes come true.

She’d first written after her mother, Paloma, had abandoned them. She’d wanted to give Tella a happy birthday. Her sister had been the most devastated when their mother left. Scarlett had tried to make up for Paloma’s absence. But Scarlett was young, and Tella wasn’t the only one who desperately missed their mother.

It would have been easier to let her go if she’d at least said good-bye, written a note, or left a tiny hint as to where or why she’d gone. But Paloma had simply vanished, taking nothing with her. She’d disappeared like a broken star, leaving the world untouched, save for the bits of missing light that no one would ever see again.

Scarlett might have wondered if her father had harmed her mother, but he’d gone rabid once Paloma had left him. Torn up the entire estate looking for her. Had his guards raid the towns under the guise of searching for a criminal, since he’d not wanted anyone to discover his wife had run away. If she’d been kidnapped, there were no signs of struggle, and no ransom note ever arrived. It seemed she’d chosen to leave, which made it all the worse.

Yet despite everything, Scarlett always thought of her mother as a magical person, full of glittering smiles, musical laughter, and dulcet words; when she’d been on Trisda there’d been joy in Scarlett’s world, and her father had been softer. Governor Dragna had not been violent toward his family before Paloma had left him.

Scarlett’s nana had taken more of an interest in the girls after that. She wasn’t particularly warm. Scarlett always suspected she didn’t actually like small children, but she told exquisite stories. She enchanted both Tella and Scarlett with her tales of Caraval. She said it was a place where magic lived, and Scarlett fell in love with the idea of it, daring to believe that if Legend and his players came to the isle of Trisda, they would return some of the joy to her life, at least for a handful of days.

Momentarily, Scarlett entertained the idea of experiencing not only a little happiness, but magic. She thought of what it would be like to enjoy Caraval just for a day, to explore Legend’s private isle, before closing the door on her fantasies completely.

There was one week until Scarlett’s wedding. This was not the time to embark on a foolhardy adventure. Tella had plundered Scarlett’s room, and Julian said she’d also left a ransom note, but Scarlett’s father would eventually figure out it was all a hoax. Staying here was the worst idea possible.

But if Scarlett and Tella stayed only for the first day of Caraval, they could make it back in time for Scarlett’s wedding. Scarlett doubted her father would figure out the truth about where they’d been that soon. They’d be safe, as long as she and Tella remained for only the first twenty-four hours, and their father never found out where they’d really been.

“Time’s almost up, Crimson.”

The cloud encasing them thinned, and the rim of the isle came into view. Scarlett saw sand so fluffy and white, from the distance, it looked like icing on a cake. She could almost picture Tella running her fingers along it—and coaxing Scarlett to join her—to see if the sand tasted as sugary as it looked.

“If I go with you, do you promise there will be no more kidnapping attempts if I try to return to Trisda with Tella tomorrow?”

Julian put a hand to his heart. “On my honor.”

Scarlett wasn’t sure she believed Julian had much honor. But once they all made it inside Caraval, he’d probably abandon them anyway.

“You can start your rowing back up again. Just be careful with the splashing.”

The corner of Julian’s lips curved as he dipped his oars back in the water, this time soaking Scarlett’s slippers with cold.

“I told you to stop splashing me.”

“That wasn’t me.” Julian rowed again, more carefully this time, but water still soaked her feet. It was colder than even Trisda’s crisp coast.

“I think there’s a hole in the boat.”

Julian cursed as water moved up to their ankles. “You know how to swim?”

“I live on an island. Of course I know how to swim.”

Julian shucked his coat and tossed it over the side of the boat. “If you take off your clothes it will be easier. You’re wearing some sort of undergarment, right?”

“Are you sure we can’t just row to shore?” Scarlett argued. Although cold drenched her feet, her hands were sweating. Isla de los Sueños appeared to be about one hundred yards away; it was farther than she’d ever swum.

“We can give it a go, but this boat is not going to make it.” Julian removed his boots. “We’re better off using the time we have to undress. The water’s cold; it’ll be impossible to make it fully clothed.”

Scarlett scanned the cloud-covered water for another sign of a boat or raft. “But what will we wear when we’re on the island?”

“I think we just need to worry about making it to the island. And by ‘we,’ I mean you.” Julian unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a row of brown muscles that made it clear he’d have no problems in the water.

Then without another word, he dove into the ocean.

He didn’t look back. His strong arms cut through the icy current with ease, while arctic water rose around Scarlett until the bottom half of her dress floated about her calves. She attempted to row, but only succeeded in sinking the boat deeper.

She had no choice but to jump.

The air rushed out of her lungs, something cold and unbreathable taking its place. All she could see was the color white. Everything was white. Even the tones of the water had shifted from swirls of pink and turquoise to frightening shades of icy white. Scarlett bobbed her head to the surface, gasping for air that seared as it went down.

She tried to push against the current with the same ease as Julian, but he’d been right. The corset binding her chest was too tight; the heavy fabric around her legs kept tangling. She frantically kicked, but it did no good. The more Scarlett fought, the more the ocean battled back. She could barely keep above the surface. A wave of cold splashed over her head, dragging her all the way down. So cold and heavy. Her lungs burned as she battled to reach the surface again. This must have been how Felipe felt when her father drowned him. You deserve this, said a part of her. Like hands, the water pressed her down

down

down. …

“I thought you could swim.” Julian wrenched Scarlett up until her head broke the surface of the water.

“Breathe. Slowly,” he coaxed. “Don’t try to take in too much at once.”

The air still burned, but Scarlett managed the words: “You left me.”

“Because I thought you could swim.”

“It’s my dress—” Scarlett broke off as she felt it dragging her down once more.

Julian took a sharp breath. “You think you can stay afloat for a minute without my help?”

He brandished a knife with his free hand, and before Scarlett could agree or protest, he darted under the water.

Scarlett felt as if forever went by before she felt the pressure of Julian’s arm wrapping around her waist. Then, the tip of his knife pressed against her breasts. Scarlett’s breath caught as the sailor cut away her corset, drawing a decisive line down her stomach to the center of her hips. The arm around her waist tightened, and so did something in Scarlett’s chest. She’d never been in such a position with a boy. She tried not to think about what Julian was seeing or feeling as he finished slicing the heavy dress and pulled it off her body, leaving only her wet chemise clinging to her skin.

Julian gasped as he resurfaced, splashing Scarlett’s face with water.

“Can you swim now?” His words were more labored than before.

“Can you?” Scarlett asked hoarsely, her ability to speak strained as well. It felt as if something very intimate had just happened, or maybe it was intense only for her. She imagined the sailor had seen lots of girls in various states of undress.

“We’re wasting our energy with talk.” Julian started swimming, this time staying close to her side, though she couldn’t tell if it was because he worried about her safety, or if he was weak from helping her.

Scarlett could still feel the ocean working to drag her under, but without her heavy gown, she could fight it. She neared Sueños’s gleaming white shore at the same time as Julian. Up close the sand looked fluffier. Fluffier, and now that she thought about it, much more like snow. More than she’d ever seen on Trisda. Resting clouds of magical white, a cold carpet stretched across the entire shore.

All eerily untouched.

“Don’t give up on me now.” Julian grabbed Scarlett’s hand, tugging her toward the perfect tufts of white. “Come on, we need to keep moving.”

“Wait—” Scarlett scanned the crisp snow a second time. Again it reminded her of a frosted cake. The kind she’d seen in bakery windows, perfect and smooth, without so much as a Tella-size footprint in the snow.

“Where’s my sister?”


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