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Chapter no 25 – Evangeline

A Curse for True Love

Evangeline tore through the fog. She thought she’d headed back the way she’d come, toward the tents belonging to the Guild of Heroes. Only she saw no tents, just endless fog and night.

She might have turned around, but she could still hear Byron yelling foul names. Ones that made her wonder just what he thought she’d done and who Petra was.

It wasn’t until she outran his voice that she finally allowed her legs to slow enough so that she could catch her breath and wipe the tears from her eyes.

Poor Hale. He hadn’t deserved to die like that, or at all.

Evangeline knew it wasn’t her fault—she hadn’t thrown the knife at his throat—and yet it felt like her fault. With so many people who kept trying to kill her, she couldn’t help wondering what she had done to bring all of this about.

Was it merely because she’d married a prince—or was it because of another event in her past that she’d forgotten?

It became harder to breathe as she jogged deeper into the dark fog. She hated this not knowing and this fear that she might never know.

Mud splattered her boots and the hem of her green velvet cloak until the ground turned hard. She stumbled briefly as the road underfoot changed

abruptly to cobbled stones.

Then, as if a curtain had been parted, the fog was gone, along with the pitch-dark night. It disappeared entirely to reveal a street full of shops as bright as sweets in a jar. They all had cheery striped awnings, shiny bells, and doors painted in every color of the rainbow.

Evangeline’s skin prickled as she passed the storefronts with their perky window displays. She knew she couldn’t stop—she shouldn’t stop. She was still running for her life, and she needed to find Apollo to tell him about Jacks.

But this wasn’t just a pretty street. Evangeline knew this street. She knew the crooked lamppost at the end of it, the reason that it smelled of sweet fresh-baked cookies. And she knew that in the middle of the street, situated between Crystal’s Candy Haven and Mabel’s Baked Delights, she would find the one place in the world that she loved more than anyplace else, her father’s shop: Maximillian’s Curiosities, Whimsies & Other Oddities.

Her chest tightened painfully as she reached the front door. Suddenly nothing else mattered but this.

The shop was different than she remembered. Like the rest of the storefronts, it was fresher, shinier, younger. The paint was a shade of green so brilliant it appeared wet. The glass of the window was so clear, it looked as if there might not be any glass at all—Evangeline imagined she could simply reach through the window and snatch one of the curious items spilling out from the toppled-over purple top hat. A hat that, like the shop, Evangeline had thought she would never see again.

She might have believed this was all an illusion. There should have been no possible way that she could have run all the way home to Valenda—she wasn’t even sure how to return to Valenda from the North, but she was fairly certain one had to take a boat.

And yet when Evangeline reached out her fingers toward the shop, she could feel the door, solid and wooden and sun-warmed underneath her hand. It was real. All of it was real. She could still smell the cookies from the bakery down the street. And then she heard a voice in the distance. “Get your lemonade! Fresh lemonade!”

The cry was followed by the appearance of bubbles at the end of the street and a perfect moment of euphoria.

When Evangeline had entered the edge of the Cursed Forest, the sign had read: Welcome to the Best Day of Your Life!

She’d thought the words were frivolous, but now it seemed that’s exactly where—or when—she was.

This particular day had occurred the day before her twelfth birthday.

Evangeline had always had a love affair with anticipation. One of her favorite pastimes was to dream and to imagine. What could be? What would happen? What if? She particularly loved the rush of anticipation before special occasions, and her parents always made her birthdays extra-special.

On her ninth birthday, she’d woken up to find every tree in her mother’s garden had branches full of lollipops tied to them with polka-dot strings. There were also gumdrops sitting in the center of the flowers, and overlarge pieces of rock candy laid among the blades of grass to make it seem as if the garden stones had turned to candy in the night.

“We didn’t do this,” her father had said.

“Oh no,” her mother had agreed. “This was definitely magic.”

Evangeline knew it wasn’t—or she mostly knew. Her parents had such a way of doing things that there was always just a bit of wonder that lingered around the perimeter and made her ask if maybe it was magic after all.

And so on this day just before her twelfth birthday, Evangeline was full of hope for what magic her parents might make for her this year.

Evangeline had unshakable faith that her mother and father had planned something marvelous. She could hardly wait for it, and yet it was the waiting that made the day so wonderful.

Evangeline’s anticipation for what was about to be bubbled over. It touched everyone who entered her father’s curiosity shop that day, turning each person’s mouth to a smile and filling the store with laughter. Although no one even knew what they were laughing about. The happiness was simply contagious.

And maybe there was just a little bit of magic in the air, for by happenstance the baker down the street tried out a new recipe for stained-glass cookies that he decided to bring into the curiosity shop. He wanted to see what everyone would think, and the shop was clearly the place to be that afternoon.

The cookies were of course delicious, and they were made even better by the lemonade cart that had stopped in front of the shop. It was all yellow

and white and had some mysterious mechanism underneath that blew out a constant stream of bubbles shaped like hearts.

Evangeline had seen lemonade carts before, but never one like this. It had four flavors that, according to the sign, changed every other day. That day’s choices were:

Blueberry Lemonade

Lavender Lemonade with Honey Ice

Crushed Strawberry Lemonade with Basil Leaves

And then the most delicious of all,

Whipped Lemonade!

It was made of cream, lemons, and sugar, and topped off with a glittering dollop of vanilla cream.

Evangeline tried to savor the drink, but she also wanted to share it with her mother and father, who’d made the mistake of simply ordering the blueberry.

Evangeline could still remember sitting on the steps in front of the shop between her parents and feeling like the luckiest girl in all the world.

Evangeline didn’t know how it was possible that she could have traveled back in time to this day, but she didn’t need for it to be possible. She wanted it so much—to be back at the shop, to be with her parents, to be safe—she was willing to believe in the impossibility of it all.

A shadow moved in the shop. Evangeline saw it through the window, and although it was just a shadow, she knew who it must have belonged to.

“Father!” she cried as she stepped inside the curiosity shop.

It smelled just as she remembered—like the wooden crates that were always going in and out, and the violet perfume her mother used to wear.

Evangeline’s boots clacked against the checkered floor as she went deeper inside, crying, “Father!”

“Sweetheart,” called her mother, “don’t come back here!”

Evangeline’s knees went weak at the sound of her mother’s voice. It had been so long since she had heard it. She didn’t care what it said, no earthly force could have stopped Evangeline from following it.

She raced toward the back of the shop, where a door disguised as a wardrobe opened up to the rear storeroom. But her parents weren’t there. There were only open crates, a half-finished window display, and piles of other whatnots that Evangeline didn’t pay attention to. If she had remembered this particular day correctly, she’d find her parents in the attic filling up balloons for the following day.

The stairs were at the back of the room. But as soon as she reached them, her father’s voice boomed from above: “Honey, don’t come up here!”

“I just need to see you for a second!” She quickly climbed the stairs, her heart swelling with hope and fear that if she wasn’t fast enough, she might be plunged back to the present, and that she might not see her mother and father ever again.

When she felt the doorknob beneath her hand, solid and real, she nearly cried. The door swung open to a room full of birthday balloons. Lavender and purple and white and gold, all bouncing on springy pink strings. They were the same ones from her birthday that year, only like everything else that day, they were brighter and bouncier and there were so many more of them than she remembered.

“Sweetheart, you’re not supposed to be here,” said her mother.

“You’re spoiling the surprise,” added her father. His voice was clear and sounded near, but Evangeline couldn’t see him or her mother through all the birthday balloons.

“Mother! Father! Please come out.”

It felt like a dream that had turned to a nightmare as Evangeline shoved through the balloons. Every time she pushed one aside, another two popped into its place.

“Mother! Father!” She began popping balloons in between her cries, but more kept on appearing.

“Honey, what are you doing up there?” called her father.

Now his voice sounded as if it was coming from down the stairs. She knew it was a trick, just like this awful room.

But the problem with hope was also what made it so wonderful. Once a bit of hope had come to life, it was difficult to kill. And now that

Evangeline had heard her parents’ voices, she couldn’t help but hope that if she just ran fast enough, she would see their faces as well.

She nearly tripped on her skirts as she started down the stairs, rushing back into the room with the endless curiosity crates. As with the balloons, there were more crates than she remembered, an endless labyrinth. And just beyond, she could hear her mother saying, “Sweetheart, where are you?”

This time her mother’s gentle voice made Evangeline’s throat go tight. It was so close, and yet she had a feeling that was all it would ever be. Close, but never quite there.

“I’m sorry,” said a new voice.

Evangeline jolted and glanced to her side. Only the young man who’d just spoken didn’t have a face meant for glancing at. One look made her breath catch. He had an incredibly handsome face, and the greenest eyes she’d ever seen, eyes so green it made her wonder if she’d ever seen green eyes before.

“Why are you sorry?” Evangeline asked. “Did you do this to me?”

The Handsome Stranger’s mouth tipped down. “I’m afraid I’m not that powerful. This is how the Cursed Forest traps you. It gives you just enough to chase, but it never lets you find what you want.”

“Sweetheart, where are you?” her mother repeated.

Evangeline looked toward the sound of her voice. She believed the Handsome Stranger was right. In a way, she’d feared all along that this was too miraculous to be true. People fell into holes and wells, not into the best day of their lives, and yet all she wanted to do was run through the crates and chase the sound of her mother’s voice. She just wanted one last glimpse, one last minute, one last hug.

The Handsome Stranger didn’t look as if he was going to try to stop her if she ran after her mother again. He stood so still he could have been one of the inanimate objects pulled from the crates.

He didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, didn’t move so much as a finger. He was dressed a bit like a soldier in exquisite leather armor, but it didn’t appear to be like any other armor she’d seen that day. And although he wore armor, she didn’t notice any weapons on his person, nor did he have a mustache, so he couldn’t have been one of Apollo’s guards.

“Are you a trap of the forest, too?” she asked. “Are you here for some sort of bargain? You’ll let me see my parents if I give you a year of my life?”

“Would you make that bargain?” he asked.

Evangeline considered it. There was something about being so close to her parents, about this almost-place she was in, that made the lonely ache in her chest hurt more than usual. It was tempting to give up a year of time just for a hug, just to be held by people she loved, who loved her back and who she knew without a doubt wanted nothing but the best for her. She wanted to forget for a moment that all she had was a mysterious husband, that people kept trying to kill her, and that the one person she was inexplicably drawn to was the most dangerous murderer of all.

A year didn’t seem like such a bad price to pay to escape from all of it.

But her parents would hate it if she did that.

“No, I don’t want to make that deal,” Evangeline murmured.

“Good,” the Handsome Stranger said. “And no, I’m not another trap. I’m in a trap of my own.”

He took a slow step forward, moving with a surprising amount of grace for someone so tall and powerfully built. “The Cursed Forest brings everyone into a place that replicates the best day of their life. Then it gives people just enough of that day to make them want to search for more.”

“So you’re in a different day than I am?” Evangeline asked.

The Handsome Stranger nodded. “The forest can change its setting, but it can’t hide the people inside from one another. That’s how I found you.”

“Why would you want to find me? Who are you?”

“You knew me as Chaos. I’m your friend,” he said. But there was something strange about the way he said the word friend, as if he wasn’t entirely sure.

If Evangeline hadn’t just seen one of her guards murdered by someone who had then tried to kill her, she might not have thought much of it. She didn’t want to believe her luck could be so wretched that this Chaos person would try to kill her as well.

But she wasn’t willing to risk it. Evangeline took her dagger from her belt.

Chaos quickly threw up his hands. “You’re not in danger. I’m here because a friend of ours needs help—your help. He’s about to make a horrible decision and you need to change his mind before it’s too late to save him. I’m not here to hurt you, Evangeline.”

“Then why don’t you get the hell away from her,” growled Archer.

Evangeline hadn’t heard him approach. She just turned and suddenly Archer—Jacks—was there. It was easier to think of him as Jacks as she watched him, striding swiftly in between the crates, glaring at Chaos with murder in his eyes.

“I don’t want you near her. Ever.” Jacks pulled out his sword, and before Chaos had time to speak, he shoved the blade right through his chest.

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