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Chapter no 36

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

Birds were chirping and the sun was shining, but all Evangeline wanted to do was fall back to sleep and hear more about the first fox.

She closed her eyes, but she was too alert, and she had a feeling she already knew who this other fox was. If she believed the Handsome Stranger from her dream, then Jacks was really the Archer.

Evangeline had considered it before, but she’d dismissed the idea, even before she’d seen Jacks’s name and the Archer’s both etched onto the wall. A fact that had also made her doubt what the Handsome Stranger had said.

She would have asked Jacks about it, but Jacks wasn’t in the loft. And before she brought the question up, she wanted to be sure about it. All she had was the word of this Handsome Stranger.

The last “helpful” stranger that she’d met—Petra—had tried to kill her. And given the number of others who’d tried to murder Evangeline as well, it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine this Handsome Stranger wanted the very same thing—planting ideas in her head that would make her distrust Jacks.

Evangeline decided to dismiss the idea entirely and push all thoughts of the Handsome Stranger away as she made

her way out of bed and then down to the cozy tavern to eat. She half expected this part of the Hollow to have been a dream as well. But just like yesterday, she sat down at a table and her food appeared before her like clockwork.

The only thing missing was Jacks.

As she ate, she kept expecting to look up and find him leaning in the doorway.

It was tempting to panic when she finished her meal and he still hadn’t appeared. But the Hollow was the sort of place that made it very difficult to hold on to any panic.

Everything about the whimsical inn inspired curiosity instead of fear. In a third-floor bathing room, Evangeline found the most delightful copper tub, reminiscent of the clock in the hall. It had lovely jeweled handles and a faucet that could pour out different-colored waters in a variety of scents:

Pink honeysuckle Lavender rose Green pine needle Silver rain

She’d mixed the rain and honeysuckle, and now she smelled like a sweet and stormy day. She’d not expected to be able to take a bath, but her back was fully healed.

It was actually a little disappointing. Now that she was healed, she imagined that Jacks would want to take her from this place as soon as he returned. There was still one more stone left to find.

But Evangeline wasn’t feeling particularly driven to find it. As she’d noted earlier, the Hollow was not a place where it was easy to hold on to panic or fear, and her entire search for the stones had been inspired by fear. She wasn’t afraid right now. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time where she

had been more at peace. And she knew, somehow, that Apollo was safe as well.

Without Jacks or anyone else, she kept expecting the Hollow to feel lonely. But strangely, Evangeline didn’t feel empty or alone. The Hollow felt like the safest place she’d ever been. She found herself wishing that she could share this enchanted place with her parents. Her father would have loved all the magical wonders, and her mother would have adored all the fairytale rooms.

On the fourth floor, Evangeline finally uncovered a wardrobe full of dresses that made her think of butterflies in gardens and the feel of holding someone’s hand.

From them, she chose a soft cream dress with golden embroidery and a thick pink ribbon that tied around the waist, matching the trim on the sweet, puffed sleeves.

All she needed now was slippers.

She imagined finding a magical pair of shoes as she rummaged through the floor of the wardrobe. Surprisingly, there were no spiderwebs or balls of dust, just boxes of gloves and ribbons, along with a curious little book.

It was the first book she’d found in the Hollow, and the side of it was locked. Evangeline searched for a key, until she remembered that she could simply use her blood.

The lock opened with a click, and the first aged page was covered in a very old-fashioned handwritten script.

 

 

Evangeline felt a thrill as she read the words. She’d found the diary of the mysterious Aurora Valor. Perhaps this would provide more clues about Jacks’s past—since he’d clearly known Aurora.

The bit about the book being cursed gave Evangeline brief pause, as did the undecipherable words at the very bottom, which were the only ones written in the language of the Valors. But according to what Jacks had told her, curses couldn’t touch her in this place. The writing also looked a touch juvenile, which made Evangeline guess that the book wasn’t truly cursed.

She carried the diary downstairs to read before the fire in the tavern.

In the journal’s first few pages, there was quite a bit of complaining about her brothers, paired with mentions of weather and meals and clothing that made Evangeline imagine Aurora had either led a very mundane life or she still was trying to dissuade readers by including only boring details.

Evangeline didn’t come across Jacks’s name. She skimmed ahead searching for any mentions of him until the style of writing turned more sophisticated and the content became more interesting.

 

 

 

 

The entry ended there. Evangeline flipped through the rest of the journal. There were, sadly, only a few more pages with writing, but none of them were nearly as interesting as what this page revealed.

The journal confirmed the story Jacks had told about Aurora and Vengeance. But what struck Evangeline was what the entry had revealed about LaLa. The journal didn’t mention the name of LaLa’s brother, but Evangeline had a sinking feeling she knew who LaLa’s brother was, because she knew who Aurora’s true love was—Lyric Merrywood.

Evangeline felt a sharp pain as she thought about the horrible fate that had befallen House Merrywood. She knew

she was supposed to be upset with LaLa for putting the Archer’s curse on Apollo and her, and she was—but her heart was also breaking at the thought that LaLa hadn’t just lost her brother but her entire family.

It was almost too much to process. Evangeline was a little surprised Jacks hadn’t mentioned this when he’d told her about the destruction of the Merrywoods, but given how private Jacks was about his past, she could understand how he could also be careful with the pasts of others. Of course, that hadn’t stopped him from being nasty to LaLa about her choice of fiancé.

It all made a mind-spinning, terrible sort of sense.

Evangeline wondered then if this story had anything to do with LaLa’s desire to open up the Valory Arch. Evangeline still didn’t know what LaLa wanted, only that she wanted it badly enough to curse Apollo and her.

The clock in the first-floor hall struck Porridge.

Evangeline dropped the book—both from the sound and the shocking realization that a full day and night had passed while she’d been reading and wandering about the Hollow.

Jacks had said time worked differently here. But it wasn’t just that the time had gone so quickly, it was that she’d been so unaware of its passage. And Jacks was still gone.

The front door to the Hollow swung open.

Evangeline spun toward it, expecting Jacks to step through.

But it seemed the door had been opened by a gust of wind. The only creature who entered was a lost-looking little dragon, coughing tiny gold sparks as he hopped inside.

He was blue and shimmering and so adorable, Evangeline couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him looking curiously around.

Dragons weren’t meant for indoors, but this glittery little fellow didn’t want to leave. She kept the door open for a full,

freezing minute, but the tiny dragon just flew toward the clock, bumping his little head as he tried to get to the jeweled pendulums—over and over. Evangeline eventually scooped him up and brought him with her to the tavern.

The tables were once again magically set with steaming bowls of porridge and fresh cups of chocolate, which the tiny dragon kindly kept warm for Evangeline. She imagined he didn’t want to be tossed back outside and was trying to make himself useful.

The dragon seemed to worry every time her eyes cut toward the door. But she wasn’t thinking of throwing her new little friend back into the cold. She was looking for Jacks. And now she was starting to feel just a little nervous.

Lunch was much the same. In between bites of food, Evangeline found herself gazing toward the doorway for Jacks.

She reminded herself that Jacks was a Fate. He could control people’s emotions. He could kill with a kiss. He could handle himself.

But by dinner, Evangeline started to worry again that something might have happened to him. He’d been gone for nearly two days now. He’d disappeared before—he’d left her at Chaos’s castle for ten days—but he’d written a note letting her know he was leaving. This time, he’d just gone.

She thought of the last thing he’d said to her: I try not to

think of you at all.

Had he left to prove that point?

Whether he had or he hadn’t, there was a queasy feeling in her stomach that wouldn’t settle, despite the warmth of the Hollow. She wasn’t afraid, but she wasn’t at peace.

Evangeline stirred her cider and shoved her food around her plate.

Halfway through her meal, the tiny dragon suddenly darted behind her cider mug. The last broken heart scar on

Evangeline’s wrist prickled, and she turned toward the tavern doorway to find Jacks had returned.

He was breathtaking without even trying as he leaned in the doorframe with windswept golden hair and a crooked cape.

“Where have—” She broke off almost immediately.

Jacks wasn’t leaning in the doorway, he was gripping it for support.

“Jacks!” She ran across the tavern, horrified as his cape slipped from his shoulder, revealing a great stain of sparkling gold and red blood.

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