Chapter no 30

Once Upon a Broken Heart

The handbell choir had arrived in the grand courtyard of Wolf Hall the day after Apollo’s proposal to Evangeline. They had appeared precisely at noon, clad in heavy red capes to better contrast with the snow that would surely fall soon. There had been 144 members of the choir, one for every hour until the wedding. And every hour, one silently departed.

Tonight there were only twelve ringers left—twelve hours until tomorrow morning’s wedding—and then there was the cursed prince who’d joined them.

With a deep breath, Evangeline cracked open a pair of twin doors. Cold brushed against her as she stepped onto her balcony, letting the sweet hum of the bells and the deep sound of Apollo’s serenade surround her.

“My love!” he shouted. “What should I sing for you tonight?”

“It’s too cold out there for you,” she called. “You’re going to freeze if you keep this up.”

“I would happily freeze for you, my heart.”

Evangeline closed her eyes. It was the same thing he said every night, and then every night she stood there watching and listening until the tips of her hair were turned to frost and her breath became ice. Freezing along with Apollo felt like penance for what she’d helped Jacks do to him. It was tempting to do the same thing tonight, to simply stand there and disregard everything that had happened in the Fortuna Vaults, marry Apollo, break the spell, and hope that they could start over. Just because he was cursed didn’t mean their story had to be cursed.

But, no matter how much Evangeline wanted to, she couldn’t forget about the prophecy, and she couldn’t marry Apollo without knowing more about the Valory Arch and what would happen if it opened.

She took another deep breath, and before she could change her mind, she cried, “Apollo, I don’t want you to catch cold before our wedding. Why don’t you come up here instead?”

It was dark, but Evangeline swore his face lit up. Then he was climbing the wall.

“Apollo! Stop—what are you doing?”

He paused, already quite a few feet off the ground, hands grasping thick stones that must have been slick with ice, to say, “You told me to come up.”

“I thought you’d use the stairs. You’ll fall to your death.”

“Have a little faith in your prince, my bride.” He continued to scale the wall, only pausing when his personal guard attempted to follow. “I’ll be fine on my own, Havelock.”

Apollo reached the balcony a few agile moves later and deftly hopped over the railing.

“I’m almost saddened that after tonight there will be no need to show you how far I’d go just to be with you, my heart.” His eyes flared with heat as he took her in.

Evangeline hadn’t changed into a nightgown. Having planned on inviting him up, she was still bundled in a long-sleeved wool dress and a fur-trimmed robe. But from the ravenous way Apollo looked her over, she could have been merely wrapped in a spool of ribbon.

In one dashing move, he lifted Evangeline into his arms and carried her inside.

The room was built for a princess. The pink-and-cream carpets were plush as pillows, the glowing fireplace was crystalline rock, and the floral bed was elegant white oak with floor-to-ceiling posts and a carved headboard the length of an entire wall.

Evangeline briefly forgot how to breathe as Apollo took her straight to that enormous bed and set her down in the middle of its satiny quilts, laying her out like a sacrifice. “I feel as if I’ve been waiting for this forever.”

“Apollo—wait!” She thrust out a hand before he could join her.

“What’s wrong, my heart?” A wrinkle formed between his brows, but his dark eyes were still on fire. “Isn’t this why you wanted me up here?”

Evangeline took a deep breath. She hadn’t anticipated this response from him. All she’d wanted was to talk.

Yesterday, she had tried her hand at opening the library door that led to the books about the Valors, but like every person who’d tried before her, she’d failed. The door was locked by the same curse that warped so many Northern histories and turned them into fairytales. She’d gone back early today to search the library again, but she’d found nothing even remotely related to the Valory Arch, and she’d been too nervous to ask anyone.

Evangeline was also nervous to ask Apollo about the Valory Arch or the prophecy connected to it. She shouldn’t have been. If her questions did break Jacks’s spell, as they had with the Fortuna matriarch, it would be a good thing for Apollo—he would be free of the curse and she would no longer have to worry about fulfilling a dangerous prophecy by marrying him.

But if she was being honest, a part of her did want to marry him. She wanted the chance at the fairytale—another chance at love.

But she knew this wasn’t really love. As soon as she married Apollo, he wouldn’t be this prince anymore. He’d be the prince she’d met her first night in Valorfell, far more likely to dismiss her than to scale a wall to see her.

She sat up and placed her legs over the side of the enormous bed, facing

her betrothed like an equal rather than lying down like an offering. “I’m sorry for the confusion. I do want you here, but it’s because I need to ask you about something private.”

“You can say anything to me.” Apollo dropped to his knees, shook the damp from his hair, and looked up at her with utter adoration, eyes smoldering flecks of brown and bronze.

“If this is about tomorrow,” he said, “if you’re nervous about our wedding night, I promise I’ll be gentle.”

“No, it’s not that.” Although now that he mentioned it, Evangeline was suddenly anxious about that, too. But now wasn’t the time for it, since she still hadn’t decided if she was actually going to marry him tomorrow.

“I’ve been trying to learn more about your country, to prepare to be your bride—”

“That’s a wonderful idea, my heart! You’re going to be such an excellent queen,” Apollo crooned, practically breaking into song again.

Evangeline was tempted to end the conversation there. It would be a crime to leave him forever trapped like this. But she couldn’t ignore the prophecy.

She took a deep breath and braced herself, gripping the plush edge of the bed as she asked, “Have you ever heard of the Valory Arch?”

Apollo’s grin turned boyish. “I thought you were going to ask me something frightening.”

She thought she had.

“The Valory Arch is what you would call a fairytale.”

Evangeline wrinkled her brow. “Where I’m from, we call all of your history fairytales.”

“I know.” His dark eyes twinkled with mischief, and for a moment, he didn’t look quite so enchanted. He just looked like a boy, trying to tease a girl.

“Our history was cursed, but there are some tales we believe in more than others. Everyone believes certain things to be real history, like the existence of the Valors. But some of the stories about them have become so twisted over time they’re considered to be what you would call fairytales. Among these is the myth of the Valory Arch.” His voice deepened, turning more dramatic as he slid onto the bed beside her, close, but not quite near enough to touch.

“The stories about the Valory Arch are among our cursed tales. Stories on the Valors can only be passed down via word of mouth, and in the case of the Valory Arch, there are two different versions of the tale. Lucky for you, I know them both.”

He graced her with a proud grin, and Evangeline felt more of the tension uncoil inside of her.

“The Valory Arch is believed to be the gateway to the Valory. In one version of the story, the Valory was a magical prison built by the Valors. Magic cannot be destroyed, so the Valors said they created the Valory to

lock away any dangerous magical objects of power, or foreign captives with magical abilities. They said the Valory was built to protect the North from forces who would wish to destroy it, but…”

Apollo paused, looking as if he were searching for his next word as he slyly slid closer until their legs touched.

Evangeline’s heart skipped over a beat.

“Is this all right?” he asked, deep voice suddenly soft and utterly sincere. He would move away if Evangeline wanted, but it would crush the fragile hope that he was trying to hide behind his shy smile.

“This is nice,” she said, and she was surprised to realize how much she meant it. Ever since first suspecting Apollo was under Jacks’s spell, everything Apollo did felt like a little too much and a lot too unreal. But this—having him tell her a story as he timidly tried for the smallest touch— felt as if it could be real, as if this was how things might have been if Apollo actually cared for her. And it felt good to feel cared for.

She reminded herself it wasn’t genuine, this was just Jacks’s spell making Apollo act this way, but it had been so long since she’d felt so important to anyone. And Apollo didn’t know he was under a spell; all he knew was how he felt for her.

Evangeline gently put a hand on his knee, and Apollo smiled as if she’d just given him the sun.

“Unfortunately,” he went on, “the Valors lied. They didn’t build the Valory to protect the North from its enemies. They built it to lock up an abomination that they’d created. No one knows exactly what the Valors made, but it was so terrible that all the Great Houses turned on the Valors and chopped off all their heads. Alas, they did this before the Valors had locked away their horrible creation, so it was left to the Great Houses to imprison this abomination in the Valory and seal the arch that led to it. Normally, arches are locked with blood, but no one wanted to risk this arch being opened, so a special sort of lock was created. A prophecy.”

Evangeline fought the temptation to panic. This was only one version of a story that was cursed, and therefore unreliable. But she still asked, “How do you lock something with a prophecy?”

“The way I always heard it told is that the lines of a prophecy work like the ridges and the notches of a key. A number of prophetic lines are strung together by a diviner, and then they are carved into a door—or, in this case, an arch. Once this is done, the arch will remain locked until each line of the prophecy has been fulfilled to create the key that will allow the arch to be opened again. It’s rather ingenious. If done well, a prophecy can ensure something stays unopened for centuries.”

“Do you know what this prophecy supposedly said?”

Apollo looked amused, as if he wanted to say the prophecy wasn’t real. But he continued to humor her. “This version of the story says that the arch containing the prophecy was broken into pieces and they were parceled out to the Protectorate—a secret society that vowed to never let the arch reopen. But no one has ever found the missing arch pieces. And most everyone in the North has searched at some point.”

At her surprised expression, he explained, “The second version of the story is entirely different. This one claims that the Valory wasn’t a prison for a terrible magic but a treasure chest holding the Valors’ most powerful magical objects. Some believe this was really why the Valors were killed, because the Great Houses wanted to steal their magic and treasure. In this account of the story, the Wardens, those who had remained loyal to the Valors even after their death, locked the arch with the prophecy so that the Valors’ powers and treasures would be prevented from falling into the wrong hands.”

Hands like Jacks’s.

Evangeline could definitely see Jacks being interested in magical treasure. Unfortunately, she could also picture him being interested in the magical terror from the first version of the story.

She tried to remember what Jacks had said about the Valors to see if she could figure out which version of the tale he believed in. But all she knew for certain was that whatever it was that was locked away, Jacks wanted it desperately. The look on his face when they’d reached the Fortunas’ arch had been one of utter hope. But why? Why did he believe in a story that Apollo clearly thought of as a fairytale?

Was Jacks hoping to find the Valors’ greatest treasure, or free their greatest terror?

“When I was younger,” Apollo went on, “my brother, Tiberius, and I would go on quests to search for the Valory. It was one of our favorite games…” Apollo’s voice turned wistful as he trailed off, lost in the memory of a brother he rarely mentioned.

When Evangeline had first moved into Wolf Hall, a chatty servant had told her that Tiberius’s room was right next to hers. But when Evangeline had tried to ask more questions, the servant’s lips had sealed shut. Apollo kept denying the rumor that he and his brother had had another falling-out after Apollo’s engagement to Evangeline. But Evangeline had yet to see Tiberius inside the castle, and whenever she’d asked Apollo where his brother had gone or why he’d left, Apollo just told her she’d love Tiberius when they finally met. Then he would abruptly change the subject.

Evangeline was tempted to ask Apollo about his brother again, before tomorrow happened and everything changed. For by this time tomorrow, nothing between them would be the same. Because she was going to marry Apollo. Jacks was going to lift Apollo’s curse, and then Apollo might never again look at her the way he looked at her tonight.

She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing. She only knew that after tonight, it was the thing she wanted to do.

Keeping Apollo under this curse felt a lot like letting Marisol and Luc remain stone statues; it would be less painful for Evangeline, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t doom Apollo to living life under a spell.

The prophecy still made her nervous, but with so much unknown about the Valory Arch, Evangeline decided that she had to do the best with what was known. And she knew the only way to save Apollo from his curse was to marry him, regardless of the consequences.

“Evangeline, my love, are you all right? Why are you trembling?”

She looked down at her hands. When had they started shaking? “I’m— I’m—” She didn’t know what to say. “Cold—aren’t you cold?”

Apollo frowned, clearly not believing she was cold in her heavy cloak, while a fire roared behind them. “This is sudden, and I know I’ve rushed you, but I swear, I will take good care of you.”

She started to shake harder.

Apollo’s face completely fell. “Just give us time. I know you don’t feel quite the same—”

“It’s not that—” She broke off, unsure of what to say, wishing there were some magic words that would spare his feelings now and still keep him at an arm’s distance. He’d do anything for her in this state, and she didn’t want to take advantage. She didn’t want to hurt him, or herself by growing closer, or buying into the delusion that this was real. “You’ve been so sweet to me.”

The lines bracketing his mouth grew deeper. “You say that as if tomorrow will change things.”

“Of course it will change things,” she said. “Isn’t that why we’re doing it?” And for a moment, she was so tempted to lean into him. The leg pressing against hers was warm even through all the layers of clothing, and she imagined his arms would be warm as well. Warm and soothing and solid. Apollo had embraced and kissed her, but no one had simply held her since Luc. She missed it, not just being held by him but being held by anyone. Since losing both her parents, all those soothing, loving little touches had become far more precious to her. She missed the way her father hugged her, the way her mother used to comfort her, and—

Apollo’s arm slid around her shoulder, tender and warmer than she’d imagined, and there was nothing that could have stopped her from leaning into him. Just for a few heartbeats, then she’d pull away.

“If you want, I could stay…” He said each word as if he were holding his breath. “We don’t have to do anything. I could sleep in my clothes and just hold you.”

Evangeline didn’t trust herself to speak.

She should have said no. She really should have said it.

Apollo wasn’t himself; if he had been, he’d not be offering this. He wouldn’t even be in her room. But he was in her room, and he was looking at her as if all he wanted in the world was for her to say yes to him.

“Please, Evangeline, let me stay.” He wrapped his other arm around her and held on to her like a promise he intended to keep. The way he touched her was soft and reverent and full of all the comfort she’d missed so much.

She still should have said no. But something had changed between them since he’d climbed up into her room. She knew that it would shift again tomorrow, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to take advantage of it for one night. “That would be nice.”

And it was. It was very nice.

Possibly the last nice thing between them.

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