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Caraval: Part 2: Chapter 12


Scarlett’s nana used to say the world of Caraval was Master Legend’s great playground. No words were spoken that he didn’t hear. Not even a whisper could escape his ears, no shadow went unseen by his eyes. No one ever saw Legend—or if they did, they didn’t know it was him—but Legend saw all during Caraval.

Scarlett swore she felt his gaze on her as she stepped into the hall. She sensed it in the way the candlelit lanterns seemed to glow brighter, like eyes perking up, as she examined her message.

The envelope looked the same as every one Legend had sent her before, gold and cream and thick with mystery.

When she opened it, several red rose petals fell onto her palm, along with a key. Delicate green glass. Similar to the one she’d been given for her room, only this key had a number five etched into it, and attached to it was a tiny black ribbon, which held a wide slip of paper with one name: Donatella Dragna.

Scarlett knew this was supposed to be her first clue. But to her it felt more like a gift from Legend, just like the dress and the invitations to the isle. Scarlett had found it difficult to believe she was special in the clock shop, but maybe she was feeling a touch of Caraval magic, for she found herself daring to hope that Legend was indeed treating her differently, taking care of her again by showing her where her sister was. For a moment Scarlett felt as if everything was going to be right and bright.

She flew down the hall until she reached the steps to the third floor. Room five came after room eleven: a square teal door with a green glass handle that looked a bit like a giant gemstone. Gaudy and magnificent. Perfect for Tella.

Scarlett started to use her key, but the breathing on the other side of the door sounded a little too loud for Tella. A smoky-ginger prickle of discomfort crawled down Scarlett’s neck as she put her ear closer to the door.

Thud.

Something heavy dropped to the floor.

Followed by a groan.

“Tella—” Scarlett reached for the handle. “Are you all right?”

“Scarlett?” Tella’s voice sounded strained, out of breath.

“Yes! It’s me, I’m coming in!”

“No—don’t!”

Another loud thud.

“Tella, what’s going on in there?”

“Nothing—just—do not come in.”

“Tella, if there’s something wrong—”

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m—just—busy—” Tella broke off.

Scarlett hesitated. Something was wrong. Tella didn’t sound like herself.

“Scarlett!” Tella’s voice rang loud and clear, as if she could see her sister reaching for the knob. “If you open that door I will never speak to you again.”

Her tone was low, and this time it was echoed by a deep voice. A young man’s voice.

“You heard your sister,” he said.

The words ricocheted through the crooked hall, hitting Scarlett like a burst of unwanted wind, reaching into all the places her clothing couldn’t protect.

She felt five different shades of berry-colored foolish as she walked away. All this time she had been worried about Tella, but obviously her sister had not been concerned about her. She probably hadn’t even thought about her. Not when she had a young man in her bed.

Scarlett shouldn’t have been surprised. Her sister had always been wilder; Tella liked the taste of trouble. But it wasn’t the wildness that hurt Scarlett. Tella was the most important person in the world to Scarlett, but it always broke Scarlett to know her sister did not feel the same way.

When their mother, Paloma, had abandoned them, all the soft parts of Scarlett’s father seemed to disappear along with her. His rules went from strict to severe, and so did the consequences for failing to obey. It would have been so different if Paloma had just stayed on Trisda. Scarlett vowed she’d never leave Tella alone the way their mother had left them. She would protect her. Even though Scarlett was only one year older, she didn’t trust anyone else to take care of her sister, and as Tella grew up, Scarlett didn’t trust Tella to take care of herself. But while she had sheltered Tella, she’d also spoiled her. Tella too often thought only of herself.

At the end of the hall, Scarlett slumped to the floor. Rough wooden boards rubbed awkwardly beneath her. It was colder on this lower level than it had been up the stairs. Or maybe she only felt chilly because of Tella’s dismissal. She’d chosen someone else over Scarlett. A young man whose name Tella probably didn’t even know. While Scarlett often feared men, Tella was the opposite, always chasing after the wrong ones, hoping one might give her the love their father withheld.

Scarlett thought about returning to her room, warmed with fire and full of blankets. But all the heat in the world would not entice her to share a bed with Julian. She could have gone down and asked the innkeeper for another room, but something told her that was not a wise idea, not after making such a fuss about how Julian needed to be let in. Stupid Julian.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. … She repeated the word in her head until her eyes drifted shut.

“Miss—” A warm hand rocked Scarlett’s shoulder, returning her to wakefulness.

Scarlett startled, clutching her hands to her chest as her eyes shot open, only to quickly close again. The young man in front of her held a lantern rather close to her face. She could feel its warmth licking her cheek, though he stood a safe distance away.

“I think she’s drunk,” said a young woman.

“I’m not drunk.” Scarlett opened her eyes again. The young man with the lantern appeared a few years older than Julian. But unlike the sailor, this young man was made of polished boots and neatly tied-back hair. He was attractive, and the care he took with his appearance made Scarlett think he knew this as well.

Dressed entirely in sleek black, he was the type of boy Tella would have called uselessly pretty, while secretly thinking of ways to gain his attention. She noticed all the ink covering his hands and moving up his arms. Tattoos, carnal and intricate, arcanists’ symbols, a mourning mask, lips curved into an alluring pout, bird talons and black roses. Each of them was at odds with the rest of his refined appearance, which made Scarlett more curious than she ought to have been.

“I was accidentally placed in a room with someone else,” Scarlett said. “I was on my way to ask the innkeeper for another suite, but then—”

“You just fell asleep in the hall?” This from the girl who had called Scarlett drunk. She was farther away from the lantern, and the rest of the hall’s lights had gone out, so Scarlett couldn’t clearly see her face. She imagined her to be sullen and unattractive.

“It’s complicated.” Scarlett faltered. She could have easily told them about her sister, but even if this couple never met Tella, Scarlett didn’t want to expose her sister’s indiscretions. It was her job to protect Tella. And Scarlett wasn’t sure she really cared about what either of these people thought of her, even if her eyes kept falling on the young man with the tattoos. He had the sort of profile meant for sculptors and painters. Full lips, strong jaw, coal-dark eyes sheltered by thick, dark brows.

Being cornered by a young man like this, in a dimly lit hall, ought to have made her uncomfortable, but his expression was concerned rather than predatory.

“You don’t have to explain,” he said. “I’m sure you had a good reason for sleeping out here, but I don’t think you should stay. I’m in room number eleven. You can sleep there.”

From the way he said it, Scarlett was fairly certain he didn’t intend to stay in the room with her—unlike another young man she knew—yet Scarlett was so used to hidden danger, she couldn’t help but hesitate.

She studied him again in the lamplight, eyes falling on the black rose that inked the backside of his hand, elegant and lovely and a little bit sorrowful. Scarlett didn’t know why, but she felt as if that tattoo somehow defined him. The elegant and lovely part might have scared her away—she had learned that this too often disguised other things—but the sad part drew her in. “Where will you sleep?”

“My sister’s room.” He nodded to the girl at his side. “There are two beds in her suite. She doesn’t need them both.”

“Yes I do,” said the girl, and although Scarlett still couldn’t see her clearly, she swore the girl looked Scarlett over with disgust.

“Don’t be rude,” said the young man. “I insist,” he added, before Scarlett could protest again. “If my mother found out I let a shivering young lady sleep on the floor, she would disown me, and I wouldn’t blame her.” He held out an inked hand to help Scarlett up. “I’m Dante, by the way, and this is my sister, Valentina.”

“Scarlett, and thank you.” She spoke tentatively, still surprised he wanted nothing in return. “This is very generous of you.”

“I think you’re giving me too much credit.” Dante held Scarlett’s hand a beat longer. Briefly his dark eyes traveled below her neck, and she swore his cheeks pinked, but he brought his gaze back up before it could make her uncomfortable. “I glimpsed you from the tavern earlier, but it looked as if you were with someone else?”

“Oh, I—” Scarlett hesitated. She knew what he was asking. But she couldn’t discern if Dante’s curiosity was because of the game, or something that involved actual interest in her. All she knew was that the steady way Dante gazed at her warmed up the chilly parts of her limbs, and she imagined if Julian were in the hall with a pretty girl, he’d not claim Scarlett as his fiancée.

“So, you’d be free to meet me at nightfall for dinner?” he asked.

Valentina groaned.

“Shut it,” said Dante. “Please ignore my sister; she had too much to drink tonight. It makes her a little more unlikable than usual. I promise, if you meet me for dinner, she will not be coming along.” He continued to smile at Scarlett, the way Scarlett always hoped a boy would, as if he wasn’t just attracted to her, but he wanted to protect and take care of her. Dante’s eyes stayed on her as if he couldn’t turn away.

The count will look at me the same way, Scarlett assured herself. For although she wasn’t truly involved with Julian, she was still engaged, and behaving otherwise was dangerous. “I’m sorry. I—can’t. I—”

“It’s all right,” Dante interrupted quickly. “You don’t have to explain.” He smiled again, wider but not nearly as sincere. Silently he walked her to his room before handing her an onyx key.

For a tense moment they both lingered near the door—narrow and pointed. Scarlett feared that despite his word Dante was going to try to go inside with her. But he merely waited for her to make sure the key worked before whispering, “Sleep well.”

Scarlett started to say good-bye, but she broke off as she entered the room. An oil lamp sat on the short wardrobe, illuminating the mirror above it. Even in the dim, Scarlett’s image was clear. Dark hair fell past shoulders barely covered in thin ruffles of gauzy white fabric.

She gasped. The evil gown had transformed again, turning sheer and lacy and far too scandalous to be worn in a public hall or while talking to a strange young man.

Scarlett slammed the door without finishing her good-bye. No wonder Dante had been unable to take his eyes off her.

Scarlett did not dream well.

As she slumbered, she dreamed of Legend. She was back in the gilded balcony, wearing little more than an exposed black corset with a red petticoat and trying to cover up with the curtains.

“What are you doing?” Legend swaggered in, sporting his signature blue velvet top hat and a gaze full of wayward intent.

“I was just trying to watch the game.” Scarlett wrapped herself deeper into the curtains, but Legend pulled her away. His hand was as cold as snow, his youthful face concealed by a shadow.

Frost nipped Scarlett’s naked shoulders.

Legend laughed and wrapped both hands around her waist. “I didn’t invite you here to watch, precious.” His mouth moved closer to hers, as if he was about to kiss her. “I want you to play the game,” he whispered.

Then he threw her off the balcony.


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