Page 67 of Caraval (Caraval 1)


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“I don’t want you to regret any of your choices.” Julian’s tone almost sounded pained, as if he wanted her to pull away, but everything about the way he continued to touch her made her feel the opposite. His fingers were now at her mouth, tracing the line of her bottom lip. They tasted like wood and rain, damp from running through her wet hair. “There are still things you don’t know about me, Crimson.”

“Then tell me what they are,” Scarlett said. He’d shared about his sister and Legend, but there were obviously more shadows in his life.

Julian’s fingers were still at her mouth. Slowly she kissed them, one by one. Just a gentle press of her lips, but she could feel how it affected him by the way his other hand gently dug into her lower back. She had to concentrate to keep her voice from turning breathless as she looked up at his face half eclipsed by darkness and said, “I’m not afraid of your secrets.”

“I wish I could say you shouldn’t be.” Julian stroked her lip a final time, then covered her mouth with his own. Saltier than his fingers and more intense than the hand now moving down her spine or the one tightening around her waist. He held her as if she might slip through his grip, and she clung to him, loving the feel of the muscles that lined his back.

He mumbled words against her lips, too low for her to hear, but she imagined she got a strong impression of what he wanted to say, as he coaxed her lips apart, letting Scarlett taste the coolness of his tongue and the tips of his teeth as he grazed her lower lip. Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.

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That night the moon stayed out a little longer, watching with silver eyes as Julian took Scarlett’s hand and wrapped it carefully in his own. He kissed her once more, gently and deliberately, reassuring her without words that he had no intentions of letting her go.

If this had been another sort of story they would have stayed like this, twined in each other’s arms until the sun woke up, casting rainbows across the storm-ravaged sky.

But most of Caraval’s magic ran on time, soaking up the hours of the day and turning them into wonders at night. And this night was running out. Nearly all the glowing red beads in both of Castillo Maldito’s hourglasses had tumbled through into the bottom. Like drops of falling rose petals.

Scarlett looked up at Julian.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I think I know what the last clue is. It’s the roses.” Scarlett recalled the vase of flowers she’d found next to the box containing her dress. Foolishly she’d assumed they’d been sent together. Scarlett didn’t know what they meant, but they were all over the game. It made sense to believe they were part of the fifth clue; they had to symbolize something besides a sick homage to Rosa.

“We have to get back to La Serpiente and look at the roses,” she said. “Maybe there’s something on the petals, or a note attached to the vase.”

“What if your father sees us when we go back there?”

“We’ll take the tunnels.” Scarlett dragged Julian through the courtyard. It was already chilly out, but the air felt even colder when they reached the abandoned garden. Skeletal plants surrounded them, while the dreary fountain in the center dripped a melancholy siren song.

“I don’t know about this,” Julian said.

“Since when did you become the nervous one?” Scarlett teased, though she felt ochre shades of uneasy as well, and she knew it wasn’t from the garden’s enchantment.

She’d just made a huge error by going to the haberdashery, and she wasn’t eager to make another mistake. But Aiko had been right when she’d said some things were worth the pursuit regardless of the cost. Scarlett now felt as if she were trying to rescue herself as well as Tella. She’d not given much thought to this year’s prize—the wish—but she was thinking about it now. If Scarlett did win the game, maybe she really could save them both.

Scarlett removed her hand from Julian’s and pressed against the Caraval symbol embedded inside the fountain. Just as before, the water drained and the basin transformed into a set of winding stairs.

“Come on.” She waved him forward. “The sun will be up any minute.” Scarlett could already picture it, bursting through the darkness, ushering in the da

wn of the day she’d originally intended to leave. And for the first time, despite all that had happened, she was glad she’d remained, because now she was determined to win the game and sail away with more than just her sister.

Scarlett reached for Julian’s hand again as she stepped onto the stairs.

“Why does it seem as if you’re always trying to leave the moment I show up?” Governor Dragna appeared at the other end of the neglected garden, followed by the count, whose dark hair dripped water in his eye; no longer did he appear excited by this challenge.

Scarlett yanked Julian down the damp steps to the tunnel entrance, gripping his hand as her father and the count gave chase. She didn’t dare look behind her, but she could hear their pursuit, the thunder of their boots, the shaking of the ground, the pounding of her own heart as she spiraled down the stairs.

“Julian, you need to go ahead of me. Find the lever to shut the tunnel, before—” Scarlett broke off as her father and the count reached the stairs. Their shadows stretched out in the golden light, clawing at her from afar. It was too late to keep them out of the tunnels now.

But Scarlett and Julian were almost at the bottom of the steps. Scarlett could see the tunnels went off in three different directions: one lit by gold, one almost pitch-black, and the other illuminated by silver-blue.

Ripping her arm free from his protective grasp, she pushed Julian toward the darkest tunnel. “We need to split up, and you need to hide.”

“No—” He reached for her.

Scarlett danced back. “You don’t understand—after tonight, my father will kill you.”

“Then we won’t let him catch us.” Julian wove his fingers through hers and raced with Scarlett into the golden passage on the left.

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