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Tella was no longer floating.
She was on the damp ground, feeling far, far away from the bright, sparkly thing she'd been the evening before. Back when Legend's private isle had radiated amber-tipped light, which breathed enchantment and wonder, along with a hint of deception. A delectable combination. And Tella had reveled in it. During the party to celebrate the end of Caraval, she had danced until her slippers were stained with grass and sipped flutes of bubbly wine until she'd practically floated.
But now she was facedown on the cold, hard forest floor.
Not daring to open her eyes, she groaned and brushed bits of nature from her hair, wishing some of the other remnants from last night could be as easily swept away. Everything reeked of stale liquor, pine needles, and mistakes. Her skin itched and crawled, and the only thing worse than the spinning in her head was the twisted soreness in her back and neck. Why had she thought falling asleep outside was a brilliant idea?
"Argh." Someone grunted the not-quite-satisfied sound of a person on the verge of waking up.
Tella opened her eyes, peered to the side, and then closed her lids immediately. Dirty saints.
She was not alone.
Amid the towering trees and the untamed greens of the forest floor, Tella had flashed open her eyes just long enough to glimpse a dark head of hair, bronzed skin, a scarred wrist, and a boy's hand covered with a black rose tattoo. Dante.
It all rushed back in a surge of blurry memories. The feeling of Dante's experienced hands wrapped around her hips. His kisses on her neck, her jaw, then her mouth as their lips became intimately acquainted.
What in all the hells had she been thinking?
Of course, Tella knew exactly what her thoughts had been during the Caraval performers' party the night before. The world had tasted like magic and starshine, like granted wishes and dreams come true, yet beneath it all, death still coated Tella's tongue. No matter how much champagne she drank, or how warm the air grew from dancing, Tella still shivered from the chilling recollection of how it had felt to die.
Her jump from Legend's balcony had not been an act of despair; it had been a leap of faith. But for just one night she hadn't wanted to think about it, or why it mattered. She wanted to celebrate her success, to forget everything else. And Dante had looked like the perfect way to do both. He was attractive, he could be charming, and it had been too long since she had been properly kissed. And, saints, did Dante know how to kiss.
With another groan, he stretched beside her. His large hand landed on her lower back, warm and firm, and far more tempting than it should have been.
Tella told herself she needed to escape before he woke. But even asleep, Dante was so good with his hands. He idly ran his fingers up her spine to her neck, lazily digging into her hair just enough to make her back arch.
His fingers stilled.
Dante's breathing grew suddenly quiet in a way that told Tella he was now awake as well.
Swallowing a curse, she hastily pushed up from the ground, away from his stilled, skilled fingers. She didn't care if he saw her sneaking off; it would be far less uncomfortable than exchanging any forced pleasantries before one of them became bold enough to make an excuse for why he or she needed to rush away. Tella had kissed enough young men to know that anything said by a boy right before or directly after she kissed him could not be believed at all. And she really needed to leave.
Tella's memories might have been blurry, yet somehow she couldn't manage to forget the letter she'd received before things became interesting with Dante. A stranger, face hidden underneath the cloak of night, had slid the note into her pocket and disappeared before she could follow. She wanted to reread the message right away, but considering what she owed the friend who'd sent it, she did not think that would be very wise. She needed to return to her room.
Damp earth and spiked tree needles snuck between her toes as she began to slink away. She must have lost her slippers somewhere, but she didn't want to waste time searching for them. The forest was tinged with indolent honey light and punctuated by heavy snores and murmurs that made Tella think she and Dante weren't the only ones who'd passed out under the stars. She didn't care if any of them saw her sneaking away from the pretty boy, but she didn't want anyone telling her sister.
Dante had been more than a little nasty to Scarlett during Caraval. He worked for Legend, so it had only been an act — but although Caraval was over, it was still somewhat difficult to weed out the bits of fact from fiction. And Tella didn't want her sister further hurt because Tella had chosen to have some fun with a boy who'd been so cruel to Scarlett during the game.
Thankfully the world remained asleep as Tella reached the edge of the forest, and then, Legend's turreted house.
Even now, with Caraval officially ended, and all the candles and lanterns inside unlit, the mansion still breathed wisps of beguiling ember-glow light, reminding Tella of tricks yet to be played.
Until yesterday, this estate had contained the entire world of Caraval. Its grand wooden doors had led visitors to elegant balconies draped with lush red curtains, which surrounded a city made of canals, streets that had minds of their owns, and uncanny shops full of magical pleasures. But in the brief time since the game had ended, the turreted house had shrunk in size and the ephemeral wonderland hidden within its walls had disappeared, leaving behind only the parts that would normally belong inside of a grand house.
Tella trotted up the closest staircase. Her room was on the second floor. With a rounded robin's-egg-blue door, it was easy to find. It was also impossible to miss Scarlett and Julian, standing next to it, holding on to each other as if they'd forgotten how to say the word good-bye.
Tella was glad her sister had finally lost herself in some happiness. Scarlett deserved every joy in the Empire, and Tella hoped it would last. She'd heard Julian didn't have a reputation for stringing girls along, he never carried on relationships after Caraval, and he'd not even been scripted to stay with Scarlett after bringing her to Legend's isle. But he lied for a living, which made it difficult for Tella to trust him. Yet, as the pair stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, and their heads leaning closer together, they looked like two halves of the same heart.
Their eyes stayed locked as Tella crept around them toward her room.
"Is that a yes?" Julian murmured.
"I need to talk to my sister," Scarlett said.
Tella halted in front of the door. She swore the letter in her pocket grew suddenly heavy, as if impatient to be read again. But if Julian had just asked Scarlett what Tella had hoped, then Tella needed to be a part of this conversation.
"What is it you want to talk to me about?" Tella interrupted.
Scarlett pulled back from Julian, but his hands remained wrapped around her waist, weaving through the blushing ribbons of her dress, clearly not ready to let her go. "I asked your sister if you'll both go with us to Valenda for Empress Elantine's seventy-fifth birthday celebration. There will be another Caraval and I have two tickets." Julian winked.
Tella tossed her sister a grin. This was exactly what she'd hoped for. Although a part of her still couldn't believe the rumors she'd heard over the past week were true. Caraval only occurred once a year, and she'd never known of two games being played so close together. But Tella supposed even Legend made exceptions for the empress.
Tella continued to look at her sister hopefully. "I'm surprised this is even a question!"
"I thought you didn't like Elantine's Day because it always overshadowed your birthday."
Tella wobbled her head as she weighed her answer. Her true reasons for wanting to go had little to do with Elantine's Day, although her sister was correct. For as long as Elantine had been empress of the Meridian Empire, her birthday had been a holiday, Elantine's Day, which was ushered in with a full week of parties and dances, bended rules, and broken laws. On the girls' home isle of Trisda, this holiday was only celebrated for one day, on the thirty- sixth day of the Growing Season, but it still overshadowed Tella's birthday, which had the misfortune of occurring the day afterward.
"It will be worth it to visit Valenda," Tella said. "When do we leave?"
"Three days," Julian answered.
Scarlett puckered her mouth. "Tella, we need to discuss this first."
"I thought you've always wanted to go to the capital, to see all its ancient ruins and the carriages that float through the sky, and this will be the party of the century! What's there to talk about?"
Julian's brown skin went gray.
Tella's face might have done the same.
"The count lives in Valenda, and we can't let him see you," Scarlett said.
Scarlett was the overly cautious sister, but Tella couldn't blame her for this reservation.
Count Nicolas d'Arcy was Scarlett's former fiancé whom Scarlett's father had arranged for her to marry. Before Caraval, Scarlett had only written him letters, but she'd believed herself in love with him. She'd also thought the count would keep both her and Tella safe — until Scarlett met him during Caraval and learned what a despicable human being he was.
Scarlett was right to worry about the count. If Scarlett's former fiancé discovered Tella was alive, he could send word to their father — who believed Tella was dead — and it would shatter everything.
But things would also fall apart if Tella didn't go with Legend and his performers to the Empire's capital city of Valenda. She might not have had the chance to reread the letter from her friend, but she knew what he wanted, and she would never get it for him if she was separated from Legend and his performers.
During Caraval, Tella hadn't been entirely certain who worked for Legend. But all of his performers would be on the boat to Valenda — Legend might even be on the boat as well, giving her the opportunity she needed to finally get the one thing her friend required.
"The count is so concerned with himself he probably wouldn't recognize me even if I walked up to him and gave him a slap in the face," Tella said. "We only met for a moment, and I was not looking my best."
"I know, I know, you want me to be serious," Tella cut in. "I'm not trying to mock you. I'm fully aware of the danger, but I don't think we need to be afraid of it. We could just as easily perish in a shipwreck, but if we let that fear stop us, we'll never leave this isle again."
Scarlett grimaced and turned to Julian. "Would you mind giving my sister and me a moment alone?"
Julian answered against Scarlett's ear, too low for Tella to hear. Whatever he said made Scarlett blush. Then he left and Scarlett's mouth flattened into a line as she and Tella enclosed themselves in Tella's room.
Inside, unmentionables were everywhere. Stockings peeked out from the drawers of a dresser topped off with bonnets, while a variety of capes, gowns, and petticoats formed a path to her bed, which was covered in a teetering pile of furs that she'd won in a card game.
Tella knew Scarlett thought she was lazy. But Tella had a theory: Neat rooms were easy to rifle through and search undetected because it was simple to put carefully placed things exactly where they'd been. But messes, on the other hand, were difficult to re- create. With one sweeping gaze, Tella could see no one had been brave enough to lay a finger on her personal disaster. Everything appeared untouched, even though there now seemed to be an additional bed, which Tella imagined must have magically appeared, or more likely had been carried upstairs for her sister.
Tella didn't know how long they'd be allowed to stay on the isle. She was relieved they weren't being kicked out right away, although if they'd been evicted, maybe Scarlett would have been more eager to travel to Valenda. But Tella didn't actually want her sister to be forced into anything; she hoped Scarlett would make the choice for herself. Though Tella could understand her sister's reluctance. Tella had died during the last game. But that had been her decision, it was for a good reason, and she wasn't planning on dying again. It had been as horrid for Tella as it had been for Scarlett. And there were still so many things Tella wanted — and needed — to do.
"Scar, I know you think I wasn't being serious out there, but I think we need to start being happy rather than serious. I'm not saying we need to participate in Caraval, but I think we should at least go to Valenda with Julian and the others. What's the point of all this glorious freedom if we don't enjoy it? Our father wins if we keep living as if we're still trapped beneath his heavy fists."
Tella must have misheard. "Did you say I'm right?"
Scarlett nodded. "I'm done with being scared all the time." She still sounded nervous, but her chin now lifted with something like determination. "I'd rather not play the game again, but I want to go with Julian to Valenda. I don't want to trap myself here like our father trapped us on Trisda."
Tella felt a surge of pride. Back on Trisda, Scarlett held on to her fear, as if it would keep her safe, but Tella could see her sister fighting to let it go. She really had changed during Caraval.
"You were right last night, when you encouraged me to give Julian another chance. I'm glad I went to the party, and I know I'll regret it if we don't go with him. But," Scarlett added, "if we go to Valenda, you have to promise you'll be careful. I can't lose you again."
"Don't worry. I swear it." Tella solemnly took her sister's hands and squeezed. "I enjoy my freedom way too much to let it go. And, while we're in the capital, I'll be sure to wear impossibly bright dresses so I'll always be impossible to lose."
Scarlett's mouth tilted toward a smile. Tella could see her sister trying to battle it, but then it transformed into a melodious laugh. Happiness made Scarlett even prettier.
Tella giggled with her until their smiles matched, as if worries were things made for other people. Yet Tella could not forget the letter in her pocket, reminding her of a debt to be paid and a mother who still needed to be saved.
It had been seven years since Tella and Scarlett's mother, Paloma, had disappeared.
There was a period of time that started about a year after her mother left, when Tella preferred the idea of Paloma being dead. If she was still alive, Tella reasoned, she'd made the choice never to return to her daughters, which meant she couldn't have really loved them. But if Paloma was dead, then maybe she'd intended to return, but had never been given the chance; if she was dead, it was possible she'd still loved Scarlett and Tella.
So for years Tella clung to the hope that her mother had met death, because no matter how hard Tella tried, she could not stop loving her mother, and it hurt too much to imagine that her mother didn't love her back.
Tella pulled out the letter she'd received from her friend. Scarlett had left to tell Julian they'd go with him to Valenda. But Tella didn't know how long she'd be gone, so she read swiftly.
Congratulations on escaping your father and surviving Caraval. I am pleased our plan worked, although I had no doubts you would survive the game.
I am sure your mother will be quite proud, and I believe you should be able to see hersoon. But first you must keep up your end of our bargain. I hope you haven't forgotten what you owe me in exchange for all that I've shared with you.
I plan on collecting my payment very soon.
The aching in Tella's head returned, and this time it had nothing to do with the drinks she'd consumed the night before. She couldn't shake the sense something was missing from the letter. She swore there'd been more to it when she'd read it at the party.
Tella held the message to the butterscotch light streaming through her window. No hidden lines of script appeared. No words shifted before her eyes. Unlike Legend, her friend didn't lace his letters with magic tricks, but she often hoped he would. Maybe then she'd be able to confirm his identity.
She'd first contacted him more than a year ago, to help her and her sister escape from their father. But Tella still had no idea who her friend was. For a while she had wondered if her correspondent was actually Legend. But her friend and Legend could not be the same person — the payment her friend referred to made Tella certain of that.
She still needed to acquire this payment. But now that she and Scarlett were going to Valenda with Legend's players, Tella felt more confident she would. She had to.
Her pulse danced faster as she hid her friend's letter and opened her smallest trunk — the one she'd not allowed the players to rifle through during Caraval. She had filled it with money pilfered from her father. But that was not the only treasure it concealed. The interior was lined with an unappealing burnt-orange and lime-green brocade that most people would never look at closely enough to notice the slit along the edge of it, which allowed her to hide the catalyst for this entire situation: The Aracle.
Excerpted from "Legendary"
Copyright © 2018 Stephanie Garber.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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