It felt like stepping into a world made of ancient fairy tales and dreams come to life. Air smelling of evergreen, dusty with flecks of gold lantern light.
Scarlett didn’t know where the snow had gone, but not a flake remained. The ground was dotted with flower petals instead. The forest was shades of green and olive and jade and ivory. Even the tree trunks were covered in rich emerald moss, except for the bits wrapped in gold-and-cream streamers. People sipped golden drinks as rich and thick as honey, while others ate cakes that looked like clouds.
And then there was Julian. Her heart leaped into her throat at the sight of him. Scarlett had been looking for him since the moment she arrived, and suddenly she couldn’t move or breathe.
Across the way, under a bow of green leaves and gold ribbons, he stood drinking a flute of honey, looking very much alive and chatting with a shiny-haired brunette, far too pretty for Scarlett’s comfort. When he laughed at something the girl said, Scarlett’s heart plunged from her throat to her stomach.
“This was a mistake.”
“Looks like you need my help again.” Aiko appeared between Tella and Scarlett. Unlike the sparkling and colorful outfits she had worn during Caraval, the girl’s bustled dress was now sedate and dark. Blue or black, Scarlett couldn’t tell. With a floor-length straight skirt, long sleeves, and high neck.
“I get cold,” she stated simply. “And you look as if you have a chill as well, though I’m guessing it’s not from the temperature.” Aiko’s eyes went to the brunette, watching as she wrapped her hand around Julian’s arm.
“Her name is Angelique. You might recall her from the dress shop. She loves flirting with the ones who have their sights set on someone else.” Aiko looked pointedly at Scarlett.
“Is this your way of saying I should go over there and talk to him?”
“You said it, not us,” said Tella.
Aiko nodded in agreement.
“Ah!” Tella exclaimed.
Scarlett followed her sister’s gaze until it hastily dropped on Dante, who’d just entered the party. He was still dressed in black, but now had both his hands, and a pretty girl on either arm.
“Dante, I’m so glad you’re here! I was looking for you, and I believe Aiko was as well.” Tella trotted off toward Dante. Without a word Aiko followed, leaving Scarlett all alone.
Scarlett tried to steady herself with a deep breath, but her heart beat faster with every step she took. Dew from the grass dampened her thin gold slippers. Julian still hadn’t looked her way and she feared what she would see when he did. Would he smile? Would it be the polite sort or the real sort? Or would he turn back to Angelique and make it clear that whatever he’d shared with Scarlett was really nothing at all?
Scarlett stopped several feet away, unable to move any closer. She could hear the low rumble of his voice now as he told Angelique, “I think that’s where we’re headed next.”
“And are you planning on stealing the show again?” Angelique asked.
A wolfish flash of teeth.
Angelique wet her lips.
Scarlett wanted to melt into the night, wink out of existence like a broken star.
Then he saw her.
Without another word, Julian set down his glass and strode toward her. The leaves above Scarlett shuddered, raining down bits of green and gold as he moved. His gait shifted, wavering between confident and something that looked nothing like it.
Her Julian. Yet, how could he be hers when she didn’t know anything real about him?
She said, “Hello,” but it came out like a whisper. And for a moment they just stood there, under trees that had gone as still as her heart.
“So, is your name really something else?” she finally asked. “Like Caspar?”
“Thankfully, no, my name is not Caspar.”
When Scarlett didn’t smile, he added, “It gets too confusing if we all use different names. Only the performer who plays Legend does that.”
“So your name really is Julian?”
“Julian Bernardo Marrero Santos.” His lips curved slightly, just the corners. Not the wicked twist she recognized. Another sharp reminder that this was not the boy she knew. Shades of the rich ruby love she’d felt during the game mixed with hues of deep-indigo hurt, turning everything just a little bit violet.
“I feel as if I don’t know you at all,” she blurted.
“Ouch—you’re wounding me, Scarlett.” He sounded more serious than mocking. Yet all she heard was the way he’d called her Scarlett—not Crimson. The nickname had probably just been part of the game, and it shouldn’t have meant anything, yet not hearing it reminded her once more of who he really was, and wasn’t.
“I don’t think I can do this.” She turned to leave him.
“Scarlett, wait.” Julian grabbed her arm, spinning her back around. From the distance they might have looked like one of the many dancing couples around them—if one couldn’t see the frustration in his face or the hurt in hers.
“Why do you keep calling me Scarlett?” she asked.
“Isn’t that your name?”
“Yes, but you’ve never called me it before.”
“I’ve also never done this before.” A muscle ticked in Julian’s jaw. “When the game ends, we go, leaving everything behind. I’m not used to talking to participants after it’s over.”
“Would you rather I go?” Scarlett asked.
“No. I would think that’s obvious,” Julian ground out. “But I do want you to stop looking at me as if I’m some kind of stranger.”
“But you are,” she said.
“Can you deny it? You know so much about me and I don’t know anything real about you.”
The hurt in Julian’s expression deepened. “I know it feels like that, but not everything I told you was a lie.”
“But most of it was. You—”
Julian brought a finger to Scarlett’s lips. “Please let me finish. It wasn’t all a deception. Who we play during Caraval always reflects part of who we are. Dante still thinks he’s prettier than everyone else. Aiko is unpredictable, but usually helpful. You might think you don’t know me, but you do. What I told you—about my family being well connected and playing games—that was true.” Julian waved an arm, gesturing toward all the people around them. “This has been my family for most of my life.”
A mixture of pride and some other emotion that Scarlett couldn’t place edged his features. And suddenly she recognized one of his names from her nana’s stories—Santos. “You’re related to Legend?”
Instead of answering, Julian scanned the celebration before turning back to her. “Will you walk with me?” He reached out a hand.
Scarlett could still remember kissing his fingers, tasting each one as she pressed them to her lips. A tremor slid across her bare shoulders at the memory. He’d warned her that she should be afraid of his secrets, and now she understood why.
Refusing his hand, she followed him anyway. Her slippers crushed flower petals as he led her toward a willow tree, parting its sweeping branches so she could step through. Some of the leaves gleamed in the dark, casting gentle green light and sheltering them from the rest of the party.
“Almost my entire life, I looked up to Legend,” Julian began. “I was like you were, when you started writing him letters. I idolized him. Growing up, I wanted to be Legend. And when I became a performer, I never cared if the lies I told hurt anyone. All I cared about was impressing him. Then came Rosa.” The way he said her name made something tumble uncomfortably inside Scarlett’s chest. She knew Rosa was real, but she’d thought it was Legend who had seduced her.
“You were the performer who was involved with her?”
“No,” Julian answered immediately. “I never even met her, but I was telling you the truth when I said I lost faith in everything when she killed herself. After that, I realized Caraval was no longer the game it had once been, meant to give people a harmless adventure, and hopefully make them a little wiser. Legend had changed over the years, and not for the better. He takes on a part of whatever roles he plays, and he’d been playing the role of a villain for so long, he’d become one in real life. Finally, a few months back, I decided to leave, but Legend convinced me to give him another chance and stay.”
“So you’ve actually met him?” Scarlett asked.
Julian opened his mouth, as if there was something he wanted to tell her but the words wouldn’t come out. He looked at Scarlett meaningfully. “Remember what you asked me about Legend?”
“Whether you were related to him?”
Julian nodded, but didn’t elaborate. The glowing leaves of the willow tree rustled as he quietly went on, “Legend sent me a letter, asking me to play one last game. He claimed he was trying to redeem himself. And I wanted to believe him.”
Julian took a deep breath before continuing.
“I was only supposed to bring you and Tella to the isle, but every time I tried to walk away from you, I couldn’t do it. You were different than I expected. Most people only worry about their own pleasure during Caraval. But you cared so much about your sister; it reminded me of the way I had always felt about my own brother.”
Julian’s caramel eyes met Scarlett’s as he finished. And suddenly a thought struck her.
“Legend is your brother?” she asked.
A wry smile curved Julian’s lips. “I was hoping you’d figure it out.”
“But …” Scarlett stumbled over what to say next as she tried to make sense of it.
It explained why Julian would have had such a hard time walking away from the game. Scarlett knew how difficult it was to turn away from a sibling, even when they did hurtful things. And the other players had treated Julian differently.
Ever since learning Caspar had only pretended to be Legend, and that Julian was alive, Scarlett had wondered once more if Julian was actually the master of Caraval. But maybe Scarlett only thought this because the two were closely related.
“But how is it possible? You’re so young.”
“I don’t age as long as I’m one of Legend’s performers,” Julian explained. “But I was feeling ready to grow up when I decided to leave.”
“So then why did you stay and play this time?”
Julian looked at Scarlett almost nervously, as if she were the one who now had the power to break his heart. “I stayed because I started to care about you. Legend doesn’t always play fair, and I wanted to try to help you. But I knew if we grew close, and you found out the truth, it would hurt you. So at first I tried to give you excuses to hate me. But then it became harder to push you away; it pained me every time I lied to you. This game brings out the most selfish parts of many people, but it had the opposite effect on you. Watching you restored my belief that Caraval could be what I believe it used to be—and that my brother could be good once again.”
Julian’s voice was thick with emotion. “I know I’ve hurt you, but please just give me another chance.” He looked as if he wanted to reach out and touch her. And a part of Scarlett wanted him to, but it was too much to take in all at once. If Julian had been Legend, it would have been easier to hate him for putting her through so much. But knowing Legend was actually Julian’s brother left her all kinds of torn.
Before he could reach for her, she pulled away.
Julian’s mouth pinched at the corners. He was hurt, but he covered it up, bringing his hand to his face to rub the underside of his jaw. Unlike most of the game, he was clean-shaven, younger-looking, except for—
When she’d first seen him, she hadn’t noticed the mark her father had made was still there, a thin, jagged scar that ran from his jaw to the corner of his eye. She’d thought that since he could come back to life, the wound would have somehow vanished as well, and it would be as if that awful night had never happened.
Julian caught her staring and answered her unasked question. “I might not be able to die during the game, but all the injuries I receive throughout Caraval leave scars.”
“I didn’t know,” Scarlett murmured.
She’d been nervous about seeing Julian, because she’d feared the game wasn’t as real for him as it had been for her. But perhaps Tella had been right when she’d said, There’s always a bit of real mixed in with everything.
“I’m so sorry my father did that to you.”
“I knew the risks I was taking,” answered Julian. “Don’t be sorry, not unless it’s the reason you’re trying so hard to walk away from me.”
Scarlett’s eyes sought his scar again. Julian had always been handsome to her, but this very real scar down his cheek made him devastating. It reminded her of his bravery and his selflessness, and how he’d made her feel more than anyone else she’d ever met. Maybe he wasn’t exactly the same boy she had thought he was during the game, but he no longer seemed like a stranger. And he’d done it all to help his brother. How could she, of all people, hold something like that against him?
“If anything, I think this scar is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Julian’s eyes widened. “Does that mean you’ll forgive me?”
Scarlett hesitated. This was her chance to walk away. Tella had said that after tonight if she wanted, they could forget all about Caraval. Scarlett and Tella could start new lives for themselves on another island, or even one of the continents. Scarlett used to fear she couldn’t take care of herself, but now that challenge excited her. She and Tella could do anything they wanted.
But as Scarlett looked at Julian, she couldn’t deny she still wanted him as well. She remembered all of the reasons she’d first fallen for him. It wasn’t only his handsome face, or the way his smile made her stomach flutter. It was the way he’d pushed her not to give up, and the sacrifices he’d made. Maybe she didn’t know him as well as she’d have liked, but she was fairly certain she was still in love with him. She knew she could walk away, but she’d spent enough of her life fearing the risks that accompanied the things she wanted most.
In answer to his question, Scarlett lifted her hand, slowly bringing her fingers to his cheek. Her skin tingled where it touched his, sending shivers all the way down her arm as she traced the thin line from the edge of his parted lips to the corner of his eyelid. “I forgive you,” she whispered.
Julian briefly closed his eyes, brushing the ends of her fingers with his black lashes. “This time, I really promise I won’t lie to you again.”
“But, don’t you have rules about involvement with people who aren’t a part of Caraval?” Scarlett asked.
“I’m not really too concerned with rules.” Julian drew a cool finger along her collarbone as he leaned in closer, sliding his free hand around her neck.
Scarlett’s heart raced faster at the promise of his lips, the feeling of his hands, and the memory of a kiss, so flawless and so reckless.
Scarlett wasn’t sure who kissed who first. Their lips were almost touching, then Julian’s soft mouth was crushing hers. It tasted like the moment before night gives birth to morning; it was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else all wrapped up together.
Julian kissed her as if he’d never touched her lips before, sealing the promise he’d just made as he pulled her against his chest, wrapping long fingers in the ribbons of her gown.
Scarlett reached up and threaded her hands through his satiny hair. In some ways he still felt just as mysterious and unknowable as the first time she met him, but in that moment, none of her questions mattered. She felt as if her story could have ended there, in a tangle of lips and hands, and ribbons of color.