Chapter no 2

The Ballad of Never After (Once Upon a Broken Heart, 2)

Evangeline stepped through the door, and the ground beneath her crumbled as if her slippers had found crackers instead of stones. It was rather like her hope: rapidly disintegrating.

This room was supposed to hold shelves of books on the Valors, answers to her questions, a cure for Prince Apollo. But there was only a wheeze of cloudy air, wafting in swirls around a dramatically carved marble arch.

Evangeline closed her eyes and opened them as if she could blink the arch away and the precious books would appear in its place. Sadly, Evangeline’s blinks did not contain magic.

Still, she refused to give up.

In the Meridian Empire, where she was from, this arch would have just been a decorative curve of carved rock, large enough to frame a set of doors. But this was the Magnificent North, where arches were something else entirely. Here, arches were magical portals built by the Valors.

This arch had mighty angels clad in armor carved into the columns, like warriors on opposite sides of an eternal battle. One of the angels had a bowed head and a broken wing; it looked almost sad, while the other appeared angry.

Both had their swords drawn and crossed over the center, warning away anyone who might wish to enter.

But Evangeline wasn’t just anyone. And if anything, the forbidden nature of the arch made her want to look inside even more.

Maybe this arch was a gateway to the books and the cure that she needed for Apollo. If the old librarian was right about this room containing all the stories on the Valors, perhaps the angels were protecting the books from the story curse so that they would stay uncorrupted. Maybe all she needed to do was press her blood to one of their swords and they would politely step aside to let her enter.

She took another step, feeling a hopeful thrill as she pricked her finger on the dagger once again and pressed her welling blood to one of the angels’ swords.

It lit up like a candle. Glowing gold veins spiderwebbed across the stone swords, the angels, the entire arch. It was bright and light and magical. Her skin tingled as the dust on the arch floated up and sparkled all around her like tiny bursting stars. Air that had been cold was now warm. She’d known she was meant to enter this room, to find this arch, to open—

Suddenly, the breath whooshed from her lungs as the thought triggered the warning Apollo’s younger brother, Tiberius, had given her: You were meant to open it. Magic things always do that which they were created to do.

And Tiberius believed that Evangeline was created to unlock the Valory Arch.

She staggered back, hearing the memory of Jacks’s laugh again. This time it didn’t sound dark at all. It sounded amused, entertained, happy.

“No,” she whispered.

The stones still gleamed with gold threads that wove around the columns. She watched as they spread across the

top, lighting up a series of curving words that had not been visible before.

Conceived in the north, and born in the south, you will know this key, because she will be crowned in rose gold.

She will be both peasant and princess, a fugitive wrongly accused, and only her willing blood will open this arch.

Evangeline’s blood ran cold.

These were not just words. This was—she didn’t even want to think it. But pretending would not erase or change anything. This was the Valory Arch prophecy, the one that Jacks had manipulated her to fulfill. Which meant that this wasn’t just another arch. This was the Valory Arch.

Panic replaced every other feeling.

It shouldn’t have been possible. The arch was supposed to be in pieces. Although there were two conflicting tales about the Valory’s magical contents, everyone had agreed about one thing: the Valory Arch had been broken into pieces and hidden across the North to keep anyone from knowing what the prophecy was and to prevent anyone from putting the arch back together.

“No, no, no, no, no…” Frantically, Evangeline tried to wipe her blood from the stones before Jacks or anyone else could discover what she’d done. The angels hadn’t changed their pose, but she feared that any second a door would appear behind them or they would move aside. She spat and scrubbed with the sleeve of her cloak. But the glowing arch didn’t dim.

“I knew you could open the door.”

The scratchy voice was too old to belong to Jacks. But the sound of it stopped Evangeline’s heart all the same.

“My apologies, Your Highness. I see I’ve frightened you again.”

“Again?” She turned.

The man in the doorway was almost as small as a child, but far older than Evangeline, with a long, silver beard that held threads of gold, which matched the burnished trim on his white robes.

“You…” For a moment she remained too nervous to form words. “You’re the librarian who first showed me the door to this room.”

“You remembered.” Though he looked clearly pleased, the old man’s smile did nothing to put her at ease. Like the arch, he almost seemed to glow, his beard turning from an ordinary gray to iridescent silver. “I wish we had more time to chitchat, but you must hurry to find the missing stones.”

He looked up at the arch to where four stones were missing along the top. The holes appeared to be smaller than her palm—not the large chunks of fractured rock she had pictured. But Evangeline instantly knew these were the broken pieces that needed to be found to truly unlock the Valory Arch.

Her blood had not been enough. Relief swept through her.

“You must find them,” the old librarian repeated. “One for luck. One for truth. One for mirth. One for youth. But you must be careful. The stones are powerful, deceptive things. And the translation—”

“No!” Evangeline cut in. “I won’t find these stones. I’m not ever going to open this arch. Pressing my blood to it was a mistake.”

The old man gave her a weary frown. “It’s not a mistake, it’s your destiny.…” His voice trailed off as smoke puffed from his mouth instead of sound.

He scowled and tried to speak again, but only more wisps of gray and white poured forth. This time the smoke formed the words Oh bother, as if this sort of thing happened all the time.

The librarian’s beard had now gone completely to smoke, exactly like his words. His hands were suddenly transparent, same as his robes and his wrinkled face, which was now as sheer as wispy curtains.

“What are you?” Evangeline breathed, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. She’d encountered vampires and Fates, and her stepsister was a witch, but she didn’t know what this being was.

“I’m a librarian,” he finally managed to say, but the words came out like something carried through a gust of wind, rattling and distant. “I know this makes me look rather suspicious, but I assure you, if you only knew the truth. If I could tell you…”

He faded completely before he could finish, leaving Evangeline with nothing but tendrils of lingering smoke and the unsettling feeling that perhaps the Prince of Hearts was not the only supernatural force she needed to be wary of.

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