Scarlett paled, falling into a chair. “You had him killed.”
“Please don’t be upset. I was trying to protect you.”
“By having him murdered?”
“He’s not really dead,” Tella promised.
“Then where is he?” Scarlett looked around as if he’d suddenly walk through the door. But when it didn’t open, and Tella frowned, some of Scarlett’s panic returned. “If he’s alive, then why didn’t he come here with you?”
“If you calm down, I’ll explain it all.” Tella’s voice contained the slightest tremor. “Before the game began, I told Legend I didn’t want anyone making you fall in love. I knew how much you wanted to marry the count. I never liked the idea, but I wanted you to choose another path for your own reasons, not because of a Caraval player who was pretending to be someone else. So …” Tella paused, drawing the word out before rushing on to say, “I told Legend, if that happened, I wanted the player taken out of the game before it ended, and you made your final choice regarding your fiancé. I can see now how misguided that was. But I swear, I was trying to protect your heart.”
“You shouldn’t have—”
“You don’t need to say it.” Tella rocked back on her heels, frowning again. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. In my head, I saw it all playing out differently. I didn’t realize how unpredictable Legend is. He was supposed to take Julian out of the game earlier, and I never imagined Legend would actually have him killed in front of you.”
Tella appeared truly apologetic, but it didn’t erase the horror roiling around inside of Scarlett. No one should be forced to watch two of the people they love die in the same night. “So, Julian is really alive now?”
“Yes, very much. But why don’t you look happier about this?” Tella’s brows scrunched up. “From what I heard about the two of you, I would have thought—”
“I’d rather not discuss my feelings right now.” Or any of the things her sister had heard. It was starting to feel like too much to take in. Too many real threads mixed with false threads, all of them tangling together. Scarlett wanted to be thrilled Julian was alive, but she could still feel the pain of his death, and knowing that it really was all pretend meant the Julian she had fallen in love with never actually existed—he was just a role one of Legend’s performers had played.
“I want to know how it works. I need to know what’s real and what’s not.” Tears were threatening to fall again. Scarlett knew she should have been happy, and a part of her was relieved, but she was also terribly confused. “Was everything that happened scripted?”
“Not at all.” Tella plopped down in the chair beside Scarlett. “My kidnapping and your kidnapping were my ideas. And I knew you would be tested before we met on the balcony, where I would have to jump. But most of what happened in between wasn’t scripted.
“Before each game, the performers are bound by magic that prevents them from confessing certain truths—like admitting they are really actors.” Tella went on, “They’re given guidelines to follow, but their actions are not all predetermined. I think you already know this, but during Caraval there’s always a bit of real mixed in with everything. There is some free will involved. So, I can’t tell you what was real for Julian. And I probably shouldn’t tell you that his role was supposed to end shortly after he got you to the isle.” Tella paused meaningfully.
Julian had said something similar, but in light of everything else, Scarlett was no longer sure she believed any of the things he’d said to her. For everything she knew, Julian was actually Legend after all.
Still, she had to ask. “What do you mean by that?”
“According to the other players, Julian was meant only to get us to the isle and then take off. I think he was supposed to leave you at a clock shop. But you didn’t hear that from me,” Tella said. “And in case you were wondering, Julian and I weren’t ever really involved. We never even kissed.”
Scarlett blushed; this was something she’d tried to avoid thinking about. “Tella, I can explain, I would never have—”
“You don’t need to explain,” Tella broke in. “I never blamed you for anything. Though I will admit I was surprised whenever I would get reports as to how things were progressing.” Her voice went higher, as if she were on the verge of laughter.
Scarlett covered her face with her hands. Mortified was not a strong enough word to use. Despite Tella’s words, Scarlett felt deceived and humiliated.
“Scar, don’t be embarrassed.” Tella pulled her sister’s fingers from her burning cheeks. “There was nothing wrong about your relationship with Julian. And in case you were worried, it wasn’t Julian who told me about what was happening between you two. It was mostly Dante, who seemed quite put out you didn’t fancy him more.”
Tella made a funny face, giving Scarlett the impression she was pleased about this.
“I’m guessing Dante didn’t really die either?”
“No, he died, but also came back, like Julian,” Tella said. Then she did her best to explain the truth about death and Caraval.
Tella didn’t know the particulars as to how it worked. It was one of those things that people didn’t really talk about. All Tella knew was if one of Legend’s performers was killed during the game, they really died—but not permanently. They felt all the pain and nastiness that went with death, and they stayed dead until the game officially ended.
“Does that mean you would have come back, no matter what?” Scarlett asked.
Tella paled, turning whiter than her dress, and for the first time Scarlett wondered what death had been like for her sister. Tella was good at concealing her real emotions, yet it seemed she couldn’t keep the tremble from her voice as she said, “I’m not a performer. Regular people who die during the game stay dead. Now come on.” Tella pushed up from the chair, shaking off her pallor as she filled her voice with cheer. “It’s time to get ready.”
“Get ready for what?” Scarlett asked.
“The party.” Tella said it as if it were obvious. “Remember your invitation?”
“The one from Legend? That was real?” Scarlett couldn’t decide if she thought it twisted or terribly clever.
Tella grabbed Scarlett’s arm as she started for the door. “I’m not letting you say no to this celebration!”
Scarlett didn’t want to leave her sister’s side, but attending a party was the last thing she felt like doing. She enjoyed socializing, but just then she could not imagine flirting and eating and dancing.
“Come on!” Tella tugged her harder. “We don’t have much time. I’d rather not arrive looking like a specter.”
“Well then you should have picked out a different dress,” Scarlett snapped.
“I died,” Tella said, unfazed. “What’s more perfect than this? You’ll see; next game, I’m sure you’ll get into the drama of it all even more than me.”
“Oh, no,” Scarlett said. “There’s no next game for me.”
“You might change your mind after tonight.” Tella flashed a cryptic smile, and pushed open the door before Scarlett could argue. Like the tunnels underneath the game, it led to a new hallway, one Scarlett had never seen. Gemstone tiles covered the floor, tinkling softly as Tella dragged Scarlett past halls covered in paintings that reminded her of Aiko’s notebook.
Scarlett paused in front of one she’d never viewed, an image of herself in the dress shop, wide-eyed and openmouthed, taking in every creation, as Tella spied in secret from the third floor.
“My room’s this way, not the same one where you found me last night.” Tella towed Scarlett around several more corners, and past a variety of performers, who exchanged brief hellos, before stopping in front of a rounded sky-blue door. “Sorry if it’s not very tidy.”
The room inside was a disaster, covered in corsets, gowns, elaborate hats, and even a few capes. Scarlett didn’t see any gray hairs upon her sister’s head, but she imagined they were hiding somewhere, because her sister must have lost at least a year of her life in order to acquire so many new and fanciful things.
“It’s hard when there’s not much space to put things away,” Tella said, picking up clothes to create a path as Scarlett stepped inside. “Don’t worry, the dress I picked out for you is not on the floor.”
“I don’t think I can go.” Scarlett sat on the edge of the bed.
“You have to. I already got you a dress, and it cost me five secrets.” Tella marched over to a chest, and when she turned back around her arms held an ethereal pink dress. “It reminds me of a Hot Season sunset.”
“Then you should wear it,” Scarlett said.
“It’s too long for me, and I got it for you.” Tella tossed her sister the dress. It felt as indulgent and dreamlike as it looked, with tiny sleeves that dripped off the shoulders and an ivory bodice covered in ribbons that flowed into a gauzy skirt. Silk flowers clung to the ribbons, which Scarlett noticed changed color in the light, a combination of blazing creams and burning pinks.
“Just wear it tonight,” Tella said. “If the party ends and you want to leave Caraval and everyone who’s part of this world behind, I will go with you. But I’m not letting you miss this. I’ve been told Legend doesn’t extend invitations like this to anyone who’s not one of his performers, and I don’t think you’ll be happy if you leave this business with Julian unresolved.”
At the mention of Julian, Scarlett’s heart constricted. She was glad he was alive. But whatever there was between them, she was sure it wouldn’t be anywhere close to what it had been before. Even though Julian had tried to tell her the truth, it could have just been because he felt sorry for her. Or maybe it was part of the act too. It wasn’t as if he’d ever said he loved her.
“I feel as if I don’t even know him.” Scarlett also felt like a fool, but she felt too ridiculous to admit that.
“Then tonight is your chance to get to know him.” Tella grabbed her sister’s hands and pulled her up from the bed. “I wish I could tell you that whatever you two shared was real.”
“Tella, this isn’t helping.”
“That’s because you haven’t let me finish. Even if it wasn’t what you’d thought it was, you two still experienced something significant this past week. I would think he’d want closure as much as you do.”
Closure. Another word for end, conclusion.
It now made perfect sense why Julian had warned her most people she met during Caraval were not who they appeared to be.
But Scarlett could not deny that she wanted to see him again.
“I’ll make sure you’re the prettiest girl there. Next to me, of course.” Tella giggled, soft and pretty, and even though Scarlett’s heart felt as if it were breaking once again for Julian, she reminded herself she had her sister, and they were finally, blessedly, gloriously free. This was what she’d always wanted, and it came with a future that had yet to be written, full of hope and possibilities.
“I love you, Tella.”
“I know you do.” Tella looked up with an indescribably tender expression. “I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”