Chapter no 6

Once Upon a Broken Heart

Something like light tickled her skin.

Her skin.

Evangeline could feel her skin.

She hadn’t felt anything for—she actually didn’t know how much time had passed. For so long, there had been so much nothing, but now she could feel everything. Eyelids. Ankles. Elbows. Lips. Legs. Bones. Skin. Lungs. Heart. Hair. Veins. Kneecaps. Earlobes. Neck. Chest.

She was trembling from her chin to her toes. Her skin was coated in sweat, and it felt incredible—cool and damp and alive.

She was alive again!

“Welcome back.” A solid arm wrapped around Evangeline’s waist as her wobbly legs adjusted to being muscle and bone.

Her vision came into focus next.

Perhaps it was just that she hadn’t seen a face in a while, but the young man who’d wrapped an arm around her was extraordinarily handsome— dark brown skin, eyes fringed in a thick rim of lashes, a smile that hinted at an arsenal of charm. His shoulders were cloaked in a dramatic green cape lined in copper leaves as dazzling as his face. “Can you speak?” he asked.

“Why—” Evangeline coughed to clear some gravel from her throat. “Why do you look like a forest mage?”

She cringed as soon as the words were out. Clearly some of her senses

—like the filter on her mouth—weren’t doing their job yet. This stranger had saved her. She hoped she hadn’t offended him.

Thankfully, the man’s brilliant smile widened. “Excellent. Sometimes the voice doesn’t return immediately. Now tell me your full name, darling. I need to make sure you have your memory before I let you go.”

“Go where?” Evangeline tried to take in the rest of her surroundings. She seemed to be in a laboratory. Every worktable and apothecary shelf was littered with bubbling beakers or foaming cauldrons that filled the air with something like resin. This wasn’t her mother’s garden. The only familiar thing in the room was the Meridian Empire’s royal crest painted on one of the stone walls. “Where are we? And how long was I a statue?”

“Only about six weeks. I’m the palace potion master, and you’re in my most excellent lab. But you can leave as soon as you tell me your name.”

Evangeline took a moment to collect her thoughts. Six weeks meant they were in the middle of the Hot Season. Not too devastating a loss. It could have been six years, or sixty.

But if it had only been six weeks, why was no one there to greet her? She knew her stepmother didn’t care for her, and she wasn’t very close to her stepsister, but she had saved their lives. And Luc … but she didn’t want to imagine why Luc wasn’t there. Could it be none of them knew she had been revived? “I’m Evangeline Fox.”

“You may call me Poison.” The potion master’s arm left her waist to make a magnanimous gesture.

And Evangeline immediately knew who this young man was. She should have realized it right away. He looked remarkably like his fortune- telling card from Decks of Destiny. He wore a long flowing cape, jeweled rings on all his fingers, and clearly worked with potions. Poison was the Poisoner. A Fate, just like Jacks.

“I thought all of the Fates had disappeared,” Evangeline blurted.

“We recently made a grand return, but that’s not what this story is about.” Poison’s face drew eerily still, warning her this was not a subject he wanted to discuss.

Evangeline might have still been groggy, but she knew better than to push, despite all the questions this revelation prompted. Poison’s reputation wasn’t as deadly as Jacks’s. According to the myths, he didn’t usually hurt

anyone directly, but he created toxic tonics, peculiar potions, and strange serums for others, who sometimes put them to terrible use.

Evangeline peered at the goblet still in her hands.


Do Not Drink Me

“Mind if I take that?” With one jeweled hand, Poison extracted the cup.

Evangeline took a wary step back. “Why am I here? Did Jacks ask you to help me?”

Poison laughed, turning his expression friendly once again. “I’m sorry, darling, but Jacks has probably forgotten all about you. He found some trouble during the weeks you were stone. I can assure you he won’t be returning to Valenda.”

Evangeline knew she shouldn’t be curious. After her last encounter with Jacks, she didn’t want to ever see him again and give him a chance to collect on the debt she owed him. But Jacks didn’t seem like the sort to run away. He couldn’t be killed—unless that part of his history wasn’t true and Fates weren’t entirely immortal?

“What type of trouble did Jacks get into?” she asked.

Poison squeezed her shoulder in a way that made Evangeline think the word trouble was putting whatever happened with Jacks mildly. “If you have any sense of self-preservation, you’ll forget about him.”

“Don’t worry,” Evangeline said. “I have no desire to see Jacks ever again.”

Poison raised a skeptical brow. “You may say that, but once you step through the door to our domain, it’s nearly impossible to return to the ordinary. Most of us have fled this city, so you probably won’t run into any other Fates by chance. But now that you’ve gotten a taste of our world, your life will start to feel bland. You’ll be drawn to our kind. Even if you never want to see Jacks again, you’ll gravitate toward him until you fulfill the deal you’ve made with him. But if you desire a chance at happiness, fight the pull—Jacks will only lead to your destruction.”

Evangeline’s mouth screwed into a frown. She didn’t disagree, but she also couldn’t understand why a Fate would give her this warning.

“I’ll never comprehend humans.” Poison sighed. “All of you seem to welcome our lies, but you never like it when we tell the truth.”

“Maybe it’s difficult to believe a Fate would want to help a human out of the goodness of their heart?”

“What if I told you I’m being self-serving?” Poison took a sip from his goblet. “Valenda is my home. I’d rather not be forced to flee to the North for misbehaving like the others—I don’t like what the magic there does to my abilities, and it’s too cold. So I’m trying to be helpful to the crown. Now go on, there are others waiting in the great room to see you.”

Poison turned her toward a set of spiral stairs, where Evangeline got a whiff of one of the most delicious scents: pink sugarbelle cake.

Her stomach growled. She hadn’t realized how famished she was. After thanking Poison, she climbed the steps.

Within seconds, the air grew even sweeter, and the world turned bright in a way that made her feel as if her life before now had been dull. The great room appeared to be made of glimmer and light; golden chandeliers shaped like crowns reigned over gilded tables, harps, and grand pianos with golden keys. Yet it was the sight of all the people that made her forget how to breathe.

So many people. All clapping and smiling and grinning at her.

Evangeline was friendly with many from her father’s curiosity shop, and it seemed as if every one of them was there to welcome her back. It was touching and warming, but also a little odd that so many people were present.

“Hello, lovely!” called Ms. Mallory, who collected maps of fictional places. “I have so much to tell you about my grandson.”

“I can’t wait to hear,” Evangeline replied before accepting a handshake from a gentleman who always ordered obscure foreign cookbooks.

“I’m so proud of you!” called Lady Vane, who favored pots of disappearing ink.

After weeks of endless nothing, Evangeline was cocooned in hugs and kisses on cheeks. And yet her heart dipped as she failed to find Luc among the crowd.

Her stepsister stood somewhat to the side, and Luc wasn’t with her either. But Evangeline didn’t feel the relief that she would have expected at not finding them together. Did he not know about this gathering? Or was there another reason Luc had chosen not to attend?

Marisol’s expression was difficult to read. She was wobbling on her feet and trying to keep a fly from landing on the sparkling pink sugarbelle cake in her hands. But as soon as Marisol spied Evangeline, her grin widened until it was as bright as the beautiful cake.

Agnes disdained her daughter’s love of baking—she wanted great things for Marisol and said that cooking was too common a hobby—but Evangeline wondered if she’d let Marisol make this treat for today. There were four tiers of fluffy pink cake, alternate layers of sugarbelle cream, a frosting bow, and an oversize shortbread gift tag that read: Welcome back, sister!

Guilt, thick and heavy, mingled with Evangeline’s unease. She would never have expected such a gesture from her stepsister, and she certainly didn’t deserve it.

“Oh, there’s my precious, lovely girl!” Agnes approached and threw both arms around Evangeline. “We were all desperately worried. It was such a relief to hear there was someone who could fix you.” Agnes squeezed Evangeline tighter and whispered, “So many suitors have been inquiring about you. Now that you’re back, I’ll arrange for the richest ones to visit.”

Evangeline wasn’t sure how to respond—to what Agnes had just said or to this version of her stepmother who believed in hugging. Even when Agnes had first married Evangeline’s father, she’d never embraced Evangeline. Agnes had married Maximilian for the same reason he’d married her—to make sure her daughter was provided for. Maximilian Fox had not been rich—his business ventures failed nearly as often as they succeeded—but he was a respectable match for a widow with a daughter.

Agnes released Evangeline from the embrace, only to turn her toward a gentleman that Evangeline hoped was not a suitor.

He wore a flowing white silk shirt with a lacy jabot that cascaded down to a pair of black leather pants so tight she was surprised he could move.

“Evangeline,” said Agnes, “this is Mr. Kutlass Knightlinger of The Whisper Gazette.

“You write for those scandal sheets?”

“They are not scandal sheets; it’s a periodical,” Agnes corrected with a sniff, making Evangeline think that the fledgling paper had grown in readership and credibility since the article that had inspired her to search for the door to the Prince of Hearts’ church.

“I actually don’t care what you call it, Miss Fox, as long as I’m allowed to feature you in it.” Kutlass Knightlinger brushed a black-feathered pen across his lips. “I’ve been covering everything related to the return of the Fates, and I have several questions for you.”

Evangeline was suddenly unsteady on her feet. The last thing she wanted to talk about was what had happened with Jacks. No one could ever know she’d made a deal with a Fate.

If Evangeline had been fully recovered, she would have pulled away with a clever excuse. But instead, Mr. Kutlass Knightlinger, of the lacy jabot and the black leather pants, was the one who did all the pulling.

Quickly, he wrangled her away from the party, through a pair of thick gold curtains and onto a bench hidden in an alcove that smelled of mystery and musk and imitation magic. Or was that Kutlass Knightlinger’s cologne? “Mr. Knightlinger—” Evangeline pushed up from the bench, and the world began to spin. She really needed to eat. “I don’t believe today is the

best day for an interview.”

“Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter what you say. I make the people I interview look good. And everyone already loves you. After the sacrifice you made, you’re one of Valenda’s favorite heroes.”

“But I’m really not a hero.”

“You’re too modest.” Kutlass leaned in closer. The heavy scent around her was definitely his cologne. “During the Week of Terror—”

“What’s the Week of Terror?”

“It was so exciting! It started right after you were turned to stone. The Fates returned—would you believe they were trapped inside a deck of cards? So much mischief and mayhem when they escaped and tried to take over the empire. But the story of how you took the place of that wedding

party and turned yourself to stone inspired people all over during that difficult time. You’re a hero.”

Evangeline’s throat went suddenly dry. No wonder so many people were there. “I hope that I did what anyone else would have done in my situation.” “That’s perfect.” Kutlass pulled out an impossibly small notebook from

his leather vest and began scribbling away. “My readers are going to love this. Now—”

Her stomach cut him off with a loud grumble.

Kutlass laughed, quick and practiced as his pen strokes. “A little hungry?”

“I can’t remember the last time I ate. I should probably—”

“I only have a few more questions. There are rumors that while you were still stone, your adoptive mother started receiving marriage proposals for your hand—”

“Oh, Agnes is my stepmother,” Evangeline cut in quickly, “she never adopted me.”

“But I think it’s safe to say she will now.” Kutlass winked. “Your star will only continue to rise, Miss Fox. Now, may I have a parting word of advice for all your admirers?”

The word admirers left a bad taste on Evangeline’s teeth. She really didn’t deserve any admirers. And everyone would undoubtedly feel differently if they knew what she’d truly done.

“If you’re a little speechless, I’ll come up with something brilliant.” His feathered pen swished over his journal.

“Wait—” Evangeline still didn’t know what she was going to say, but she shuddered to think what he might be writing. “I know that stories often take on lives of their own. I already feel as if the horror I went through is turning into a fairytale, but I’m nothing special, and this is not a fairytale.”

“And yet it turned out well for you,” Kutlass cut in.

“She was stone for six weeks,” said a soft voice behind them. “I wouldn’t say it turned out well.”

Evangeline looked over Kutlass’s shoulder to see her stepsister.

Marisol stood in between the gold curtains, holding her sugarbelle cake like a shield.

Kutlass pivoted in a swish of lace and leather. “The Cursed Bride!” Marisol’s cheeks turned a painful shade of red.

“This is excellent!” Kutlass’s feathered pen began moving again. “I’d love to have a word with you.”

“Actually,” Evangeline interrupted, sensing that Marisol was the one who needed rescuing now. “My stepsister and I haven’t had any time together, so I think I’m going to steal her away to enjoy some cake.”

Evangeline finally pushed past him, linked arms with her stepsister, and departed through the curtains.

“Thank you.” Marisol clung tighter to Evangeline, and though they’d never been much for linking arms before, Evangeline felt as if her stepsister had grown thinner. Marisol had always been slender like her mother, but today she felt fragile. And her skin was almost waxen in its paleness, which could have been from interacting with Kutlass. But there were also circles beneath her light brown eyes that looked as if they’d been there for days or maybe weeks.

Evangeline stopped abruptly before they rejoined the rest of the gathering. Earlier, she’d wondered why Luc wasn’t there, but now she felt afraid of the answer. “Marisol, what’s wrong? And … where is Luc?”

Marisol shook her head. “We shouldn’t talk about this now. This is your happy day. I don’t want to spoil it.”

“You made me cake and saved me from the king of scandal sheets—I think you’re actually the hero.”

Marisol’s eyes welled with tears, and Evangeline felt a knife twist inside


“What is it?” Evangeline pressed. “What’s the matter?”

Marisol worried her lip between her teeth. “It happened four weeks ago,

when Luc and I decided we’d try to get married again.”

They tried to get married again when she was still stone? This time, the knife inside Evangeline felt as if it were drawing blood. The news shouldn’t have wounded her so much. When she hadn’t seen Luc waiting for her in Poison’s laboratory or at the welcome party, she’d imagined that nothing had changed between them. But it still hurt to hear he hadn’t even mourned

her, that a mere two weeks after she’d been turned to stone, he’d planned another wedding.

“We thought we would be safe because the Week of Terror had ended.

But on his way to the wedding, Luc was attacked by a wild wolf.”

“Wait—wait—what?” Evangeline stammered. Valenda was a bustling port city. The largest animals it had were dogs, followed by the feral cats that prowled the docks for mice. Valenda didn’t have wolves.

“No one knows where the wolf came from,” Marisol said miserably. “The physician told us it’s a miracle Luc survived. But I’m not sure he really did. He was badly mauled.”

Evangeline’s legs lost their bones. She tried to open her mouth, to say that at least he was alive. As long as he was still alive, it would be all right. But the way Marisol spoke, it was almost as if he were dead.

“It’s been weeks, he still hasn’t left his house, and—” Marisol’s words turned choppy, and the lovely cake in her hands quivered until a dollop of cream fell to the carpet. “He refuses to see me. I think he believes it’s my fault.”

“How could it be your fault?”

“You heard Mr. Knightlinger. Everyone in Valenda has been calling me the Cursed Bride. Two weddings and two terrible tragedies within a few weeks. Mother keeps saying that it’s not a bad thing, that I’m special because when the Fates returned, I was the first to capture their attention. But I know I’m not. I’m cursed.” Tears streamed down Marisol’s pallid cheeks.

Until that moment, Evangeline had been fighting hard not to regret her choices. It might have been a coincidence that Luc had been attacked on his way to the wedding, but it seemed far more likely Luc’s assault was not just the work of a wild wolf. Jacks had told her he’d stop the wedding, and he’d clearly kept his word.

Evangeline should have never made the deal with him.

She wanted to blame Jacks completely, but this was her fault as much as it was his. She knew as soon as she saw the statues in the garden that she’d made a mistake. She thought she’d fixed it with her sacrifice, but she should have never sought out the Prince of Hearts for help in the first place.

“Marisol, I have to tell you—” The words stuck to Evangeline’s tongue. She worked her jaw to get out the confession, but she knew it wasn’t the sudden tightness she felt that caused the problem. She was afraid.

Evangeline was trembling, just as hard as when she’d first heard the news of Luc’s engagement to Marisol. Her words had also stuck in her throat that day when she’d tried to talk to Marisol about Luc. She’d been so convinced it was some sort of curse. And she still wanted to believe that. But Evangeline could no longer ignore the possibility that maybe she’d been mistaken.

Maybe the real reason Evangeline had never been able to talk to Marisol about Luc wasn’t because of a spell. Maybe it was fear that had paralyzed her tongue. Maybe, deep down, Evangeline feared that she and Luc weren’t actually cursed, but he was just an unfaithful boy.

“It’s all right, Evangeline. You don’t have to say anything. I’m just glad you’re back!” Marisol set her cake on the closest gilded table and threw her arms around Evangeline, hugging her the way Evangeline always imagined that real sisters hugged.

And she knew she couldn’t tell her the truth, not today.

Evangeline had just spent the last six weeks alone as stone. She wasn’t ready to be alone again, but she would be if anyone learned what she’d done.

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