Chapter no 23

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

The grounds were warmer than Evangeline would have expected—especially for a House with the word slaughter in its name. Nearing the castle felt like stepping into a tale that a bard might share in front of a fire as travelers drank ale and ate stew.

This place was old. The kind of old that changed the scent of the air. Evangeline was still sitting in the carriage, but as they neared the looming castle, she swore she could smell the dust of long-ago battles and the smoke from hearth fires that had burned centuries ago. Even the grainy flaxen light pouring from the countless windows looked like a remnant of the past.

After their carriage came to a halt, Evangeline followed Jacks outside. She didn’t know if any of the missing arch stones had already arrived around the necks of other guests. But she did not feel any hints of the mirth stone as she and Jacks neared the row of waiting servants. They lined the drive like decorative soldiers, dressed in immaculate silver coats stitched up to mimic armor.

Two servants darted toward the coach to grab their luggage. Several of the other maids and grooms grinned and nodded at Jacks; he was practically scowling, and yet he still managed to dazzle. Evangeline did not have the same

effect. She smiled at everyone, but the few servants who looked her way did so with disdain, all narrowed eyes and flattened lips.

She tried not to let it bother her—it could have simply been that the servants were feeling cold or that she was feeling frayed. But then she heard the words, spoken in tones too loud to be called whispers.

“I still think she killed the prince.”

“I don’t know why everyone raves about her hair.” “She should go back to where she came from.”

Jacks dropped a heavy arm around her shoulders, sending a shock straight through her as he pulled her suddenly close. “Want me to kill any of them for you?”

“No, they’re just gossiping.”

“Then what if I merely give them the urge to cut out their own tongues?” he asked, flashing one of his dimples.

Evangeline stifled a giggle, though she knew she shouldn’t be amused. She had no doubt he was serious about the tongues. “Don’t you dare—”

“You sure? They deserve it.” The whole House deserves


The thought was so quiet, Evangeline wasn’t sure Jacks

intended for her to hear it. But before she could remark on it, LaLa was there, bursting through the manor’s double doors in a welcoming shower of golden, dragon-scale-shaped sequins and open arms.

“It’s so good to see you, my friend!” She wrapped Evangeline in a hug that made everything feel warm. Until that moment, Evangeline hadn’t known how much she needed a hug. When was the last time someone had hugged her?

It had probably been LaLa, which made Evangeline squeeze her friend extra tightly. “I’m so glad to be here.”

“Not as glad as I am. Most of the guests are Robin’s friends, so I was thrilled when you wrote and said you could make it.” LaLa’s grin was incandescent as she pulled away. “You two are the last ones to arrive. Everyone else is changing for dinner. Except for those who went out to hunt some poor little beastie, Robin included. So you’ll have to meet him later.”

“I still can’t believe you’re engaged to him,” Jacks muttered.

LaLa’s pretty smile hardened. “You do not get to judge my choices, Jacks. Evangeline told me what you did. I know how you framed her for murder and poisoned Apollo.”

Jacks shrugged insouciantly. “It was to open the arch. I’d have thought you’d approve. Or—”

“Shhh—” LaLa hissed. “You can’t talk about such things in this house.”

Jacks groaned. “First, I can’t kill anyone or cut out any tongues—”

“Whose tongue did you want to cut out?” LaLa interrupted.

“Just a few of your fiancé’s servants’.”

“Actually, that might not be a bad idea,” LaLa said, and Evangeline had a horrible feeling that her friend was not joking, either.

Fortunately, LaLa was smiling again as she ushered Jacks and Evangeline inside the manor.

It smelled like mulled wine and possessed all the grandness that Evangeline had come to expect from the Great Houses of the North. The arched ceilings were dramatically high, and the floors were covered in a mosaic of tiles that depicted men and women in battle, holding up swords or shields or the occasional bloodied head.

The history of House Slaughterwood seemed to clearly fit its name. Instead of books on shelves, there were more

ancient weapons—war hammers, morning stars, maces, crossbows, and battle-axes. Every person who made it into a painting on the wall wore armor, save for one woman. She had a pleasant face and a very warm smile, and she reappeared in portraits quite often as LaLa led Jacks and Evangeline up a grand set of stairs.

It took Evangeline a minute, but eventually, she recognized the woman as someone she’d seen a picture of last night—Glendora. She’d been Vengeance Slaughterwood’s second bride-to-be—and unlike Aurora, Glendora had clearly gone on to marry him.

It seemed terribly unfair that Vengeance could destroy a whole House and then have a family of his own. Evangeline might have remarked upon it, but she didn’t want to bring any grief to LaLa by mentioning ugliness from the past.

“Here we are,” LaLa said shortly after they reached the fourth floor. “This is one of my favorite suites.” LaLa’s arms swung wide as she opened a door with a cheery swoosh.

Snow fell like magic outside the suite’s bay windows, adding a little whimsy to the early night and to the room, which was fitted with an enormous roaring fireplace, thick fur carpets, a lovely window seat, and a striking four-poster bed with a voluminous velvet quilt the color of sparkling wine.

“The view is truly spectacular,” said LaLa. “In the morning, you’ll be able to see Glendora Slaughterwood’s famed winter garden.

“And here are just a few party favors,” she trilled, motioning toward a large pile of wrapped parcels. “I also included a gown for tonight, in case your things were too wrinkled, and there’s a dress for tomorrow as well, in case you forgot to pack a costume.”

“That’s so very generous,” Jacks said, somehow making it sound like an insult as he wandered to an ancient desk

and picked up a bookend shaped like a tiny dragon.

LaLa’s smile faded. “Put that down, Jacks. Your room is in a different wing.”

“No.” He plopped into the leather chair and kicked his buckled boots up onto the desk. “I’m staying next door to Evangeline.”

“You can’t,” LaLa protested. “The Darlings are there.”

“Then move them to a different room. Every time I leave this girl alone, someone tries to kill her.” Jacks’s voice stayed friendly, but his eyes turned to two ice blades as he said, “Right now, there’s a curse on her husband, and it’s a nasty piece of work that forces him to hunt her down like a fox.”

LaLa’s face turned stricken. “Evangeline—”

“Please don’t worry, my friend. I didn’t mention it when I wrote because I didn’t want to spoil your engagement.” Evangeline gave Jacks a pointed look.

He shrugged and tossed the little dragon as if it were an apple. “It’s not as if she’s really going to marry him.”

“Jacks—” Evangeline hissed.

“I’m just speaking the truth. We all know who LaLa really is—or at least I do.” He threw the dragon higher.

Mortified was not a strong enough word for how Evangeline felt just then.

“I’m so sorry,” Evangeline said to LaLa. “Jacks must have left his manners in the carriage. You don’t need to put him next door to me. You could place him in the barn—or the dungeon if there is one.”

“No, Jacks is right,” said LaLa. “If you’re in danger, he should stay close.”

She wore her smile again, but it was starting to look rumpled, like a piece of clothing that had been taken off and put back on too many times. Not even the golden sequins of her gown could make it dazzle.

Evangeline felt partly responsible. “LaLa—I’m so sorry for bringing my tragedy here.”

“Please don’t apologize. Parties aren’t any fun without a little drama. I should really be thanking you.” LaLa gave Evangeline a smile that was perhaps a little too wide.

Evangeline pretended she believed her. She smiled back as if curses and murderous princes were things that merely lived inside stories. And for an odd moment, the only one in the room who appeared entirely honest was Jacks. He set the dragon on the desk with a thump and stalked out the door. Although he’d actually won his fight about the room, he appeared even unhappier than before.

“I’m really sorry about him,” Evangeline said.

LaLa waved a hand as if it were nothing. “I’m used to Jacks’s mercurial moods. And he’s always disliked House Slaughterwood.”

“He told me Chaos was the one who had a problem with the House,” Evangeline replied, although after Jacks’s story in the coach, it was clear he disliked the Great House as well. But now she was curious as to whether his story could be entirely trusted. She didn’t want to repeat it—the murderous tale of Vengeance Slaughterwood hardly seemed appropriate talk for LaLa’s engagement party—and yet she wondered if her friend could confirm if the tale was true. “Jacks also told me that House Slaughterwood is the reason we are all in this mess.”

LaLa sighed heavily. “House Slaughterwood has done terrible things, but we’ve all done terrible things for love.”

She grinned then, making Evangeline suspect that LaLa’s definition of terrible things was a bit like Jacks’s: they really didn’t matter as long as they got a person what they wanted.

She left seconds later, with a kiss on Evangeline’s cheek and some words about getting changed into something

quickly for dinner.

After a day of riding in a carriage, Evangeline felt like soaking in a bath instead of changing, but she had no idea when Jacks would return, and she didn’t want him walking in on her as she dressed.

She started to sort through the clothes that LaLa had left. Then she heard the whispers.


“Archer’s curse … hunting … almost killed her.”

The words came from the room next door, low and hushed. Evangeline shouldn’t have been able to hear them, and she definitely shouldn’t have tiptoed closer to listen better—but it sounded like Jacks and LaLa, and they were obviously talking about her and Apollo.

Evangeline cupped her hands to the wall and clearly heard Jacks ask, “Can you undo the curse?”

Her breath caught in her throat. He couldn’t have meant that curse. The Archer’s curse was the only reason she’d agreed to open the arch.

She listened closer. LaLa’s voice was barely a whisper. “I’m sorry. Nothing has changed since you came here last week. There’s still nothing I can do.”

“You can try.”

“You know there’s no cure.”

“You can try to find one,” Jacks ground out. “She could die.”

“You won’t let her.”

“I—” He growled. An angry sound that shook the wall.

For a second, there was nothing else but the heavy beat of Evangeline’s heart. Either Jacks spoke too low, or she didn’t hear what he said over all her swirling thoughts. He’d told her not to look for a cure to the Archer’s curse. He’d repeatedly said it was pointless. But it seemed as if he was doing just that. Based on what LaLa had said about last

week, it seemed as if this was what Jacks had been doing while he was away.

Evangeline reminded herself that she still couldn’t trust him. She knew she was just a tool to him, and as LaLa had said, humans that became too close to Jacks always died. Even if Jacks was trying to break the Archer’s curse, he undoubtedly still had another horrible plan to make sure that she opened the arch.

Evangeline couldn’t let herself think that Jacks’s search for a cure meant he cared for her. She knew this was true, yet it was getting just a little harder to fully believe it. Because she was starting to care for him.

“How close are you to finding the stones?” LaLa asked. “We need three.”

For a beat … nothing.

Then, very softly, from LaLa: “I hope you brought enough apples.”

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