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Caraval: Part 4: Chapter 20


Scarlett would remember only one thing clearly about her journey from the dress shop. She would not remember her limbs feeling as light as feathers, her bones turning to dust, or either of her attempts to lie down in the boats. She would not remember being prodded out of those same boats, or dropping her cherry-blossom gown. Though she would recall the young man who picked it up, and then took her arm to help her walk the rest of the way back to La Serpiente.

The words uselessly pretty came to mind, though as she looked up at her attractive companion, his face no longer looked quite so pretty. Hard lines and harsh angles highlighted dark eyes shadowed by even darker hair.

This person did not like her. She not only knew it, she could feel it in the rough way he handled her. The way he held on to her arm as she attempted to pull away.

“Let me go!” she tried to yell. But her voice was feeble, and the passersby who might have heard were too busy scurrying to their own snake holes. A quarter of an hour was all that remained until the sun rose and erased the magic of the night.

“If I let you go, you’ll just crawl into another boat.” Dante dragged her through La Serpiente’s rounded back door. Noise from the tavern circled around them. Mugs of cider clinking against glass tables. Snorts of amusement mixed with grunts of satisfaction, and groaned tales of things unsatisfying.

Only a sharp-looking gentleman with an eye patch and a crimson cravat noticed her being dragged onto a set of stairs, where the air darkened and the noise quieted. Later Scarlett would remember him watching, but just then her main concern was escaping from Dante.

“Please,” Scarlett begged. “I need to get to my room.”

“First we need to talk.” Dante cornered her in the stairwell, long legs and tattooed arms boxing her against the wall.

“If this is about the other day … I’m sorry.” It took what felt like all of Scarlett’s strength to force the words out coherently. “I didn’t mean to trick you. I shouldn’t have lied to you.”

“This isn’t about your lies,” Dante said. “I know people lie in this game. Yesterday—” He broke off, sounding as if it were a struggle to keep his tone even. “I was upset because I thought you were different. This game, it changes people.”

“I know,” Scarlett said, “that’s why I need to get to my room.”

“I can’t let you do that.” Dante’s voice hardened, and for a rare moment of terrifying clarity, Scarlett could see he’d fallen apart even more than the last time she’d seen him. His eyes were lined in dark shadows as if he hadn’t slept in days. “My sister is missing; you have to help me find her. I know your sister is missing too, and I don’t think it’s just a part of this game.”

No. Scarlett couldn’t be hearing this now. Tella’s disappearance was simply another magic trick. Dante was trying to frighten her. Hadn’t Julian said he’d been cruel to win the game before? “I can’t talk about this right now.”

She needed to make it back to her room. It no longer mattered if it was Julian’s for the night. She could not die right there. Not in front of Dante, as crazed as he was. Somehow she managed to pull her dress from his hands. “Why don’t we meet in the tavern—after we’ve both gotten some sleep?”

“You mean after you die for two days?” Dante’s hand formed a fist against the wall. “I know what’s happening to you. I can’t lose another night! My sister is gone and you—”

Smack!

Before he could get another word out, Dante flew backward. Scarlett didn’t fully see the blow, but it was enough to knock him halfway down the stairs.

“You need to stay away from her!” Heat poured off of Julian as he gently peeled Scarlett from the wall. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“No … I just need to get up to the room.” She could feel the minutes slipping away, draining her of life, turning her limbs into flimsy strands of gossamer.

“Crimson—” Julian caught her as she started to fall. He was so much warmer than she was. Scarlett wanted to curl into him like a blanket, weave her arms around him as firmly as he’d wrapped his arms around her.

“Crimson, you need to talk to me.” Julian’s voice was no longer gentle. “What happened to you?”

“I … I think I made a mistake.” Her words came out sticky and thick like syrup. “Someone, a girl with very shiny hair and a girl with a waffle … I needed to buy dresses and they made me pay with time.”

Julian uttered several colorful curses. “Tell me they didn’t take a day of your life.”

“No. …” She fought to stay standing. “They took two days.”

Julian’s handsome face twisted, turning lethal, or maybe the whole world was twisting into something lethal. Everything spiraled sideways as Julian picked her up, tossing the cherry-blossom gown over his shoulder. “This is all my fault,” he muttered.

Julian held her close as he carried her up the stairs, down a very wobbly hall, and into what Scarlett took to be their room. All she could see was white. Endless white, except for Julian’s brown face, hovering over her as he gently laid her down onto the bed.

“Where were you … earlier?” she asked.

“In the wrong place.”

Everything was hazy around the edges, like dusty early-morning sun, but Scarlett could see the dark fringe of lashes around Julian’s concerned eyes.

“Does that mean—”

“Shh,” Julian murmured. “Save your words, Scarlett. I think I can fix this, but I need you to stay with me a little longer. I’m going to try to give you a day of my life.”

Scarlett’s head was so muddled, so broken by whatever magic worked its way through her body, that at first she thought she must have misheard him. But that look in his eyes was back, as if he wanted her to be his undoing.

“You would really do this for me?” she asked.

In answer, Julian pressed the pad of a finger to her parted lips.

Metallic and wet and just a little sweet. Bravery and fear and something else she couldn’t distinguish. Dimly, she knew she tasted his blood. It was like no other gift she’d ever received. Strangely beautiful, alarmingly intimate. And she wanted more of it. More of him.

She licked the tip of his finger, but Scarlett hungered to taste his lips as well. To feel them against her mouth and her throat. To experience the solid touch of his hands on her body. She craved the heavy weight of his chest crushed to hers, to find out if his heart beat equally fast.

Julian’s finger lingered a moment longer, pressing her lips back together, but the taste of his blood remained. And her desire for him intensified. He hovered over her, and she could hear the rhythmic beat of his pulse. She’d been sensitive to his presence before, but never more than this. She was mesmerized by his face, the dark freckle beneath his left eye, the subtle sharpness of his cheekbones, the line of his chiseled jaw, the coolness of his breath on her cheek.

“Now I need some of your blood.” His voice was so gentle, made of gentle, the same way his blood had been made of everything he was feeling.

Scarlett had never felt so close to another person. She knew she would give him what he asked for—whatever he asked for—that she would eagerly let him drink a part of her the way she had him. “Julian,” she said in a whisper, as if anything louder would destroy the delicacy of the moment, “why are you doing this?”

His amber-flecked eyes met hers, and something in them made her breathing hitch. “I’d think that answer was obvious.” He took one of her cool hands and held it near to his knife, but she imagined he waited for her permission. And she knew, he wasn’t doing this because of the game; this felt like something entirely separate, existing only for the two of them.

Scarlett pressed down on the tip of the blade. A single drop of ruby blood welled. Carefully Julian brought her finger to his mouth, and when his soft lips touched her skin the entire world shattered into a million shards of colored glass.

Her dying heart beat faster as his tongue gently drew her finger between his teeth. For a moment she could feel his emotions again, as close as if they were her own. Awe mixed with fierce protectiveness, and a thread of pain so intense she wanted to take the hurt from him. Her finger dipped deeper in, pressing against one of his sharp incisors. Days before, she’d stiffened at his touch, but now she wished she were strong enough to wrap her arms around him.

Not quite sure how far she’d already fallen, she imagined loving him would feel like falling in love with darkness, frightening and consuming yet utterly beautiful when the stars came out.

He licked her finger a final time; a shiver coursed through her so painfully cold it felt hot. Then he was lying beside her on the bed, weighing it down as he brought her into the cradle of his arms. Her back fit perfectly against his chest, solid and strong. She burrowed against him, attempting to fight off death for another minute and hold on to him instead.

“You’re going to be fine.” Julian stroked her hair as her vision went dark.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He said something else, but all she felt was his hand brush her cheek. So soft she thought she imagined it, along with the tender press of his lips to the back of her neck, right before she died.


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