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Chapter no 9

Once Upon a Broken Heart

Evangeline read the empress’s invitation one more time as her sky carriage landed on the pristine palace grounds. She had spent the last day trying to imagine what sort of opportunity the empress might want to discuss, but she still had no idea what it was. Marisol had no clue either. When Evangeline had returned to the house and told Marisol what the red note contained, her stepsister had repeatedly said she was happy for Evangeline, but she’d also looked nervous.

If Evangeline’s invitation was mysterious, the new empress was even more so.

Before Evangeline had been turned to stone, there had been a different heir to the throne: a young man nicknamed His Handsomeness. Unfortunately, she’d learned that during the Week of Terror, the Fates had made their reappearance known to the public by murdering this unlucky royal. The new empress, and her younger sister—whom people called the Fate Slayer—had battled the Fates to get the empire back, killing one, and proving that Evangeline’s theory had been correct—the Fates weren’t true immortals. They didn’t age, but they could die.

Most of the city adored the sisters for their victory over the Fates, but some believed the new empress was actually a Fate. The scandal sheets claimed that she could read minds and her fiancé was a pirate covered in a web of scars.

Evangeline knew better than to believe all the rumors. Yet she was still anxious about the mind reading. She didn’t want the empress seeing her

thoughts and learning that Evangeline was not the savior everyone believed.

Evangeline toyed with the buttons of her cream capelet, suddenly hot as she left her carriage and followed a palace servant down a flower-covered path to a door with a golden handle shaped like a hummingbird.

After opening the door, the servant bowed. “Your Majesty, Miss Evangeline Fox has arrived.” He stepped aside, welcoming her into a garden full of fairy-green trees dripping coral, pink, and peach-colored flowers that made Evangeline think of soft kisses on cheeks.

“Welcome!”

“It’s so lovely to finally meet you, Evangeline!” “Your hair really is divine!”

The empress and her sister, Princess Donatella, spoke at once as hummingbirds zipped above their heads.

“We weren’t sure what you liked, so we ordered a bit of everything,” announced the princess. With cloudburst-blue ribbons in her blond curls and a playful expression on her pretty face, she was not at all how Evangeline had imagined the brazen, Fate-slaying hellion from the scandal sheets.

“We have blackberry creams, harvest terrines, pumpkin pudding, walnut tarts, and every type of tea.” The princess waved a hand toward a tiered tower of colorful teapots piping pretty pink steam. If the royal sisters were trying to dazzle her, they were doing an excellent job.

Evangeline felt like a princess herself as she finally removed her capelet and took a seat at the generous table. “This is wonderful. Thank you for inviting me.”

“We’re so pleased you could join us,” said the empress. She was young

—probably around Evangeline’s age—although it was difficult to be sure, as she had a thick gray streak cutting through her dark hair. She wore an off-the-shoulder ruby gown, pretty lace gloves, and a smile so sweet Evangeline found it hard to believe she’d been anxious about meeting her. “We’ve wished to meet you ever since hearing about your heroism during the Week of Terror.”

“But we also want to ask for a favor,” the princess chimed in.

The empress eyed her sister, who was apparently going off script.

“What? I’m sure she’s dying with curiosity. I’m just trying to save her life.” The princess reached across her sister’s plate and picked up a square of cream paper covered in copper print.

 

In Honor of

His Highness Crown Prince Apollo Titus Acadian You Have Been Summoned to the Magnificent North to Attend Nocte Neverending Festivities Begin on

the First Winter’s Day

and They Will Not End Until Prince Apollo Has Found His Bride

 

The metallic ink shimmered as if it were still wet—or touched with Northern magic. Evangeline tried not to leap to any conclusions and failed almost immediately. She’d been hoping there was another happy ending waiting for her, and as she looked at this invitation, it was practically impossible not to imagine that this could be her way to find it.

“The North has different customs from ours,” the empress said softly. “The crown prince can’t fully ascend to the throne until he’s wed, and hosting a ball to choose a bride is one of their oldest traditions.”

It was also a tradition that Evangeline was familiar with, which felt like another sign. Her mother had told her all about Nocte Neverending. As a little girl, Evangeline thought it was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard. Secret ballrooms were built for it in forests where fallen stars had once landed, leaving everything laced with bits of enchantment. Liana Fox used to say that there were special kinds of magic that only existed in the North, and not even memories of this magic could pass to the south. Then she would tell Evangeline how every night during Nocte Neverending, the current crown prince would watch from a hidden location until he picked five ladies to dance with. Night after night, he’d follow the same routine, watching and then asking ladies to dance until he found the perfect bride.

“I’d always hoped Nocte Neverending was real,” Evangeline said. “But I was never quite sure.”

“Well, it is, and we want you to go.” The empress took a sip of tea as a hummingbird dropped peach flower petals into her cup. “We would attend, but I don’t believe it’s wise to leave the empire so soon after being crowned and—”

“There’s someone in the North that I’m avoiding,” inserted the princess. “Tella,” the empress scolded.

“What? It’s the truth.” The princess turned back to Evangeline. “I love balls and parties that have a high probability of ending dramatically. But I could cause an international incident—possibly a war—if I attend this celebration.”

The empress’s forehead creased with mortified lines.

“We can’t ignore the invitation,” the empress went on more diplomatically. “And I’d rather not begin my reign by neglecting one of the North’s most treasured celebrations. So my counsel and I have given a great deal of thought as to who should represent the Meridian Empire.” Her hazel eyes met Evangeline’s. “What you did during the Week of Terror was brave and selfless, and it made us think you’re exactly the type of person whom we’d like as an ambassador.” Her royal smile widened as her sister nodded.

Evangeline finally shoved a blackberry cream in her mouth to hide the sudden strain on her own smile.

She wanted to say yes. She’d always wished to go north, to explore the world where her mother had grown up and find out which of her mother’s tales were true. She was desperate to know if there really were pastry goblins that dropped off sweets on holidays and pet-size dragons that turned to smoke if they tried to fly south. And she wanted to go to this ball. She wanted to meet the prince and dance all night and finally let go of Luc.

If there was anything on earth that could make her forget about him, Nocte Neverending was it.

But could Evangeline say yes? The empress and her sister wanted a hero as their ambassador, they wanted the orphan savior from the scandal sheets, and Evangeline was not that girl. She was the opposite. These sisters had fought against the Fates, and Evangeline had made a deal with one.

Her throat went suddenly dry. No matter how much Evangeline tried not to think about Jacks, he was always tucked away in the back of her thoughts, a secret she feared would escape one day.

She still didn’t know where Jacks had disappeared. Poison had said that most of the Fates had ventured to the North, where they’d been given asylum, and every rumor she’d heard since confirmed it. None of these rumors had specifically mentioned the Prince of Hearts. But hadn’t Poison warned her that she’d be drawn to Jacks, whether she wanted to be or not? What if that was what this was really about? What if this wasn’t Evangeline’s chance at a happy ending but fate manipulating her path?

After Evangeline’s last encounter with the Prince of Hearts—when he was actually trying to help her—she’d been turned to stone. She didn’t want to imagine what might happen if she saw Jacks again and he decided to collect on the three kisses she owed him.

The best way to protect herself from the Prince of Hearts was to turn down the offer to go to the North.

But then what? At best, Evangeline would continue working at the bookstore and holding her breath every time the bell rang. Which suddenly felt a little pathetic rather than hopeful.

“If you’re worried about that nasty rumor, we’ve already had it fixed,” said the empress.

“Oh yes, that was so fun!” Princess Donatella held out her hand, and a pair of spirited hummingbirds delivered a sheet of black-and-white newsprint to Evangeline.

 

The Whisper Gazette

SPECIAL EDITION ANNOUNCEMENT

By Kutlass Knightlinger

Just in from a reliable source, Valenda’s Sweetheart Savior has been cured. Her touch no longer turns men to stone.

 

Evangeline hadn’t even thought to worry about this rumor, but she was impressed the sisters had already taken care of it.

“It just went out. By tonight, no one will think you’re cursed anymore,” confirmed the princess. “Though I think most people should know by now they can’t believe everything they read. You should have seen some of the things said about me after the Week of Terror.”

“I might have read a few of them,” Evangeline admitted. “The bookshop where I work keeps all the old papers.”

“And what did you think?” the princess pressed, appearing excited rather than embarrassed as she plopped a small tart into her heart-shaped mouth.

Evangeline couldn’t help but laugh. She liked these sisters. “I think Mr. Knightlinger got it all wrong. You’re far fiercer in person than the gossip sheets made you out to be.”

“I told you she’d be perfect.” The princess clapped. “Tell us you’re going to say yes! You don’t have to do anything but go.”

The sisters gave her a pair of matching grins as flower petals rained down and more hummingbirds buzzed around.

If they knew the truth about the day she’d turned to stone, they never would have asked her to do this. But maybe Evangeline could use this ball to become more of the person they thought she was. The invitation could be fate manipulating her path and bringing her back to Jacks, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also her chance at finding a happier end to her own story. She knew it was wishful thinking to imagine that if she went north she’d meet Prince Apollo and he’d fall in love and choose her. But she’d been raised to believe in wishes and fairytales and things that seemed impossible. And what if this wasn’t just her chance at a happy ending but Marisol’s opportunity as well? Evangeline had wanted to find a way to make things

better for her stepsister. Maybe this was the way.

If Marisol went north with Evangeline, no one would know her as the Cursed Bride. She’d just be a girl at a ball, and Evangeline would make sure it was the best ball of her life. By the time they returned to Valenda, Luc would be a forgotten memory for both of them.

Evangeline returned the royal sisters’ smiles. “If I said yes, would it be possible for me to take my stepsister?”

“That’s a lovely idea,” said the empress.

“I should have thought of that,” muttered her sister. “But don’t worry, we’ve thought of everything else. You might have noticed the North’s seasons are different from ours. Their first day of winter is only three weeks from now, so we might have already started preparations.”

There was a great deal of talk after that about lodging, then dresses. Fashion in the North was quite different. Gentlemen wore doublets and lots of leather. Ladies wore gowns with double skirts and ornamental belts. And then the princess was oohing and aahing about jewels and pearls, and Evangeline’s insides were like curling ribbons, all giddy and excited.

Finally, she asked the last question she was curious about. “Do either of you know anything about the prince?”

“Yes!” both sisters answered enthusiastically.

“He’s—” Princess Donatella’s eyes went foggy. “Actually, I can’t remember what I’ve heard.”

“I’ve—” The empress broke off in a similar manner as she tried to recall what she had heard as well.

Evangeline wondered if information about the prince was cursed in the same way that many Northern tales were. Neither sister could remember a thing about Prince Apollo Acadian or his family.

If Evangeline wasn’t quite so familiar with the North, this might have unnerved her. But she was far more uneasy about the three broken heart scars on her wrist that had suddenly started to burn.

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