It took seven years to get the letter right.
Scarlett’s feelings came in colors even brighter than usual. The urgent red of burning coals. The eager green of new grass buds. The frenzied yellow of a flapping bird’s feathers.
He’d finally written back.
She read the letter again. Then again. And again. Her eyes took in each sharp stroke of ink, every waxy curve of the Caraval master’s silver crest—a sun with a star inside and a teardrop inside of the star. The same seal was watermarked onto the enclosed slips of paper.
This was no prank.
“Donatella!” Scarlett plunged down the steps into the barrel room in search of her younger sister. The familiar scents of molasses and oak snaked up her nose, but her scoundrel of a sibling was nowhere to be found.
“Tella—where are you?” Oil lamps cast an amber glow over bottles of rum and several freshly filled wooden barrels. Scarlett heard a moan as she moved past, and she caught bits of heavy breathing as well. After her latest battle with their father, Tella had probably drunk too much, and now dozed somewhere on the floor. “Dona—”
She choked on the last half of her sister’s name.
Tella flashed Scarlett a sloppy grin, all white teeth and swollen lips. Her honey-blond curls were a mess as well, and her shawl had fallen to the floor. But it was the sight of the young sailor, with his hands wrapped around Tella’s waist, that made Scarlett stutter, “Did I interrupt something?”
“Nothing we can’t start up again.” The sailor spoke with a lilting Southern Empire accent, far smoother-sounding than the sharp Meridian Empire tongues Scarlett was accustomed to.
Tella giggled, but at least she had the grace to blush a little. “Scar, you know Julian, right?”
“Lovely seeing you, Scarlett.” Julian smiled, as cool and seductive as a slice of shade in the Hot Season.
Scarlett knew the polite response would be something along the lines of “Good to see you, too.” But all she could think about were his hands, still coiled around Tella’s periwinkle skirts, playing with the tassels on her bustle, as if she were a parcel he couldn’t wait to unwrap.
Julian had only been on the isle of Trisda about a month. When he’d swaggered off his ship, tall and handsome, with golden-brown skin, he’d drawn almost every woman’s eye. Even Scarlett’s head had turned briefly, but she’d known better than to look any longer.
“Tella, mind if I pull you away for a moment?” Scarlett managed to nod politely at Julian, but the instant they’d woven through enough barrels to be out of his hearing she said, “What are you doing?”
“Scar, you’re getting married; I would think you’d be aware of what occurs between a man and a woman.” Tella nudged her sister’s shoulder playfully.
“That’s not what I’m talking about. You know what will happen if Father catches you.”
“Which is why I don’t plan on getting caught.”
“Please be serious,” Scarlett said.
“I am being serious. If Father catches us, I’ll just find a way to blame it on you.” Tella gave a tart smile. “But I don’t think you came down here to talk about that.” Her eyes dropped to the letter in Scarlett’s hands.
The hazy glow of a lantern caught the metallic edges of the paper, making them blaze a shimmery gold, the color of magic and wishes and promises of things to come. The address on the envelope lit up with equal luster.
Miss Scarlett Dragna
Care of the priests’ confessional
Conquered Isles of the Meridian Empire
Tella’s eyes sharpened as she took in the radiant script. Scarlett’s sister had always liked beautiful things, like the young man still waiting for her behind the barrels. Often, if Scarlett lost one of her prettier possessions, she could find it tucked away in her younger sister’s room.
But Tella didn’t reach out to take this note. Her hands remained at her sides, as if she wanted nothing to do with it. “Is this another letter from the count?” She spat out the title as if he were the devil.
Scarlett considered defending her fiancé, but her sister had already clearly expressed her thoughts on Scarlett’s engagement. It made no difference that arranged marriages were very much in fashion throughout the rest of the Meridian Empire, or that for months the count had faithfully sent Scarlett the kindest letters; Tella refused to understand how Scarlett could marry someone she’d never met in person. But wedding a man she’d never seen frightened Scarlett far less than the thought of staying on Trisda.
“Well,” Tella pressed, “are you going to tell me what it is, then?”
“It’s not from the count.” Scarlett spoke quietly, not wanting Tella’s sailor friend to overhear. “It’s from the master of Caraval.”
“He wrote you back?” Tella snatched the note. “God’s teeth!”
“Shhh!” Scarlett pushed her sister back toward the barrels. “Someone might hear you.”
“Am I not allowed to celebrate now?” Tella retrieved the three slips of paper hidden within the invite. Lamplight caught their water seals. For a moment they glowed gold, like the edges of the letter, before shifting to a dangerous shade of bloody crimson.
“Do you see that?” Tella gasped as swirls of silver letters materialized across the page, slowly dancing into words: Admit One: Donatella Dragna, of the Conquered Isles.