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Caraval: Part 2: Chapter 9

The sky was black, the moon visiting some other part of the world, as Scarlett took her first step into Caraval. Only a few rebel stars held posts above, watching as she and Julian crossed the threshold of the wrought-iron gate, into a realm that for some would only ever exist in wild stories.

While the rest of the universe had gone suddenly dark, the grand house blazed with light. Every window shimmered with buttery illumination, turning the flower boxes below into cradles full of stardust. The citrus scent from before was gone. Now the air was syrupy and thick, still much sweeter than the air on Trisda, yet Scarlett only tasted bitter.

She was too aware of Julian. Of the heavy weight of his arm around her shoulders, and the way he’d used that arm to sell his lies. She’d been too nervous to argue at the gate, too eager to get inside and find her sister. But now she wondered if she hadn’t gotten herself into another mess.

“What was that all about?” she finally asked, pulling away when they were past the unicyclist but not quite at the mansion’s great doors. She stopped right outside its ring of alluring light, next to a fountain, where its tinkling water would mute their words in case anyone else started down the path. “Why didn’t you just tell the truth?”

“Truth?” Julian made a dark sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “I’m fairly certain she wouldn’t have liked that.”

“But you had a ticket?” Scarlett felt as if she were missing a joke.

“I’m guessing you think that girl seemed nice, and she would have eventually let me in.” Julian took a meaningful step closer. “You cannot forget what I told you at the clock shop: most of the people here are not who they appear. That girl gave a performance, meant to make you drop your guard. They say they don’t want us to get too carried away, but that is the point of this game. Legend likes to—play.” The word rolled out unevenly, as if Julian had meant to say something else and changed his mind at the last moment.

“Every guest is chosen for a reason,” he continued. “So, if you’re wondering why I lied, it’s because your invitation was not meant for a common sailor.”

No, Scarlett thought, it had been meant for a count.

A panicked vermillion moved inside of her chest as she recalled how specific Legend’s letter had been. The other ticket was meant for her fiancé. Not the wild boy who stood across from her, untying his cravat. Scarlett was risking enough by deciding to stay and play the game for one day. Pretending to be engaged to Julian made her feel as if she were asking to be punished. Who knew what she and Julian might be pushed to do together as part of the game?

Even if Julian had helped her earlier, lying for him had been a mistake, and there were always consequences for that. Her entire life was evidence of this. “We need to go back and tell the truth,” she said. “This isn’t going to work. If it gets back to my fiancé or my father that I’ve behaved as if we’re—”

In a flash, Scarlett’s back was pressed against the fountain, and Julian’s hands were spread out on either side of her, so much larger than her own. “Crimson, relax.” His voice sounded uncommonly soft, although as he spoke, relaxing instantly felt impossible. With every word he leaned in closer, until the house and lights had disappeared and all she could see was Julian. “None of this will reach your father, or your devoted count. Once we enter that house, the game is all that matters. No one here cares about who anyone is when they’re not on this isle.”

“How do you know that?” Scarlett asked.

Julian flashed a wicked smile. “I know because I’ve played before.” He pushed away from the fountain. The bright lights of the turreted house reappeared, but a chill descended on Scarlett’s shoulders.

No wonder he seemed to be such an expert. She should not have been shocked. From the moment she’d first spied him on Trisda, she had sensed he wasn’t to be completely trusted, but it seemed he was hiding even more than she’d thought behind Legend’s tailored clothes. “So that’s why you helped me and my sister make it to this isle? Because you wanted to play again?”

“If I said no, and that I did it because I wanted to rescue you from your father, would you believe me?”

Scarlett shook her head.

With a shrug, Julian leaned back, pulled his cravat off, and tossed it over Scarlett’s shoulder. A gentle splash sounded as it landed in the fountain.

It now made sense, why he’d seemed so sure of himself. Why he’d crossed the isle full of purpose rather than wonder.

“You’re looking at me as if I’ve done something wrong,” he said.

Scarlett knew she shouldn’t have been upset, they were nothing to each other, but she despised being deceived; she’d had enough of that to last a lifetime. “What’s your reason for coming back to Caraval?”

“Do I need to have a purpose? Who doesn’t want to see the magical Caraval players? Or win one of their prizes?”

“For some reason I don’t believe that.” She might have thought he was there for this year’s prize—the wish—but something in her core told her that wasn’t true. Wishes were things of wonder that took a certain amount of faith, and Julian seemed the type to trust only what he saw.

The game was different each year, but a few things were rumored to be the same. There was always some sort of treasure hunt involving a supposedly magical object—a crown, a scepter, a ring, a tablet, or a pendant. And the winners from previous years were always invited back with a guest. Though Scarlett didn’t imagine that would be a draw for Julian either, not when he was so good at finding people to help him get in.

If Scarlett wasn’t even sure she believed in wishes, she could not fathom Julian was after one. No, it was not dreams of wishes, or of the magical and fantastical that drew him to this isle. “Tell me the real reason you’re here,” she said.

“Trust me when I say you’re better off not knowing.” Julian affected a concerned expression. “It will only spoil your good time.”

“You’re just saying that because you don’t want to tell me the truth.”

“No, Crimson, this time, I am telling the truth.” His eyes locked onto Scarlett’s, unmoving and unflinching, a gaze that required complete control. With a shudder, she saw that the lazy sailor from the boat had partially been an act, and if he’d desired, she realized Julian could have kept that performance up, continued to play the part of a boy who’d happened upon her and her sister and this entire game by accident. But it was as if he wanted Scarlett to see there was more to his story, even if he refused to say what it was.

“I’m not going to argue with you about this, Crimson.” Julian straightened, stretching taller while he flexed his back and his shoulders, as if he’d arrived at a sudden decision. “Believe me when I say I have good reasons for wanting inside that house. If you want to go and turn me in I won’t stop you or hold it against you, even though I did save your life today.”

“You only did that so that I could be your ticket into the game.”

Julian’s face went dark. “Is that really what you think?” For a moment he looked truly wounded.

Scarlett knew he was trying to manipulate her. She’d had enough experience to recognize the signs. Unfortunately, despite her lengthy history of being used by her father, or perhaps because of it, she was never good at evading it. No matter how much she wanted to avoid Julian, she couldn’t ignore the fact that he had saved her life.

“What about my sister? This lie might affect your relationship with her.”

“I wouldn’t call what we had a ‘relationship.’” Julian flicked a piece of lint off the shoulder of his tailcoat, as if that was how he pictured Tella. “Your sister was using me as much as I used her.”

“And now you’re doing the same with me,” Scarlett said.

“Don’t look so put out about it. I’ve played this game before. I can help you. And you never know, you might actually enjoy it.” Julian’s voice took on a flirtatious rhythm as he turned back into a careless sailor once more. “A lot of girls would feel lucky to be you.” He brushed a cool finger against Scarlett’s cheek.

“Don’t.” She backed away, her skin tingly where he’d touched her. “If we do this, there can be no more of … this, unless absolutely necessary. I still have a real fiancé. So just because we’re saying we’re engaged doesn’t mean we need to behave like it when no one is watching.”

The edge of Julian’s mouth tipped up. “Does this mean you’re not going to turn me in?”

He was the last person Scarlett wanted to partner with. But she also didn’t want to risk staying on the isle longer than one day. Julian had played before, and Scarlett had a feeling she would need his help if she wanted to find her sister quickly.

Just then, a new party of people arrived at the gate. Scarlett could hear the dim clamor of their distant chatter. The echo of the girl on the unicycle clapping.

Inside the house, violin music, richer than the darkest chocolate, started playing. It seeped outside and whispered to Scarlett as Julian’s smile turned seductive, all shameless curves and immoral promises. An invitation to places that proper young ladies didn’t think about, let alone visit. Scarlett didn’t want to imagine what sorts of things this smile had convinced other girls to do.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Scarlett said. “It doesn’t work on me.”

“That’s why it’s so fun.”


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