Chapter no 38

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

That night, the Handsome Stranger was in the Hollow’s tavern, standing just a few feet away, throwing darts at a painted board on the wall and hitting the red bullseye every time.

“I know,” he said. “It’s hard to believe I’m so handsome

and so talented.”


He hit another bullseye, with all the ease of a young man who was either incredibly skillful or incredibly used to things happening the way that he wanted.

“Why are you haunting my dreams?”

“‘Haunting’ implies that I’m dead. Do I look dead to you?” He placed a hand over his chest and gave her a bewitching smile.

She still hesitated to trust him, but the sense of familiarity was back. The way he looked at her felt like a dare she’d received once before. He was a name on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t quite recall. A feeling that she couldn’t put a name to.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I still prefer Handsome Stranger.”

Evangeline gave him a sour look. “Why not just tell me?”

He pulled at the back of his neck. “I would, but that might make Jacks a bit jealous, and given how close you two are becoming, that wouldn’t be a good idea. Although getting cozy with Jacks isn’t too smart, either.”

The stranger raised two condescending brows.

“What I do with Jacks is none of your business,” Evangeline snapped.

The Handsome Stranger frowned. “I’m not trying to upset you, Evangeline, I’m trying to save your life.”

“Why do you care about my life?” she asked suspiciously.

The Handsome Stranger threw another dart, hard enough to cut through one of the other darts in the bullseye. “You need to be careful with Jacks. I don’t think he’s in his right mind right now.”

“He’s right.” LaLa stepped into the tavern dressed in a sleeveless gown that appeared as if it were made of treasure, with a belt around her waist that looked like a crown, and a full skirt covered in sparkling jewels.

“What are you doing here?” Evangeline asked.

“Yeah—this is my dream!” The Handsome Stranger tossed a dart at LaLa.

She batted it away with a scowl. “We’re on the same side, you nitwit.” Then she turned to Evangeline with a face that looked like an apology.

“I came to say I’m sorry—about Apollo. I felt so guilty. I had hoped to talk to you about it and explain everything before you ran off from the party. Jacks had promised he wouldn’t tell you what I did—”

“He didn’t tell me,” Evangeline cut in, too tired to be polite to the person who’d cursed her husband to hunt her down and kill her. “Jacks never said a word. I overheard the two of you talking.”

“Oh.” LaLa worried her lip between her teeth. “I suppose I owe him an apology for stabbing him with that butter

knife, then.”

“You’re the one who stabbed him?” Evangeline was begrudgingly impressed. It would take a lot of strength and determination to seriously wound someone with a butter knife.

LaLa shrugged a shoulder. “It was probably an overreaction, but it wasn’t just because I thought he’d told you everything. He was being nasty about my engagement


“From what I’ve heard, you deserved it,” the Handsome Stranger interrupted.

“Don’t you dare lecture me, too,” LaLa spat. “You’re half the reason we’re in this mess. If you hadn’t—”

LaLa broke off as the Handsome Stranger vanished. Poof! He simply disappeared, leaving nothing but a dart that fell to the floor.

“What happened to him? And why did you just say he’s half the reason we’re in this mess?”

“I’m not sure we have enough time for me to explain everything.” LaLa frowned at where the dart had fallen on the floor. “Jacks probably removed him, and I imagine he’ll do the same to me soon. So you need to listen carefully.”

“But this is my dream,” Evangeline protested.

LaLa sighed. “I don’t have time to explain how Fates can manipulate dreams. You’re just going to have to trust me.”

“Why should I trust you after everything you’ve done?”

LaLa gnawed on her lip, looking unusually nervous. “I never wanted Apollo to kill you. You really are my friend, Evangeline. I just made a rash decision the day I learned that you could open up the Valory Arch but that you weren’t planning on doing it. It was a horrible mistake. But I really didn’t want you to die. That’s why I put the mirror curse on both of you—I thought, if Apollo actually hurt you, he’d be injured as well, and then he couldn’t keep hunting you.

Everyone knows he’s a terrible shot, so I didn’t ever believe he’d hit you in the heart with an arrow.”

As apologies went, it was far from the best one Evangeline had ever received, and yet it felt earnest. LaLa looked up at her with pleading eyes, and Evangeline could see they were also rimmed in red and splotches of smeared kohl. LaLa had looked so sparkling and perfect when she’d first stepped into the dream, but the longer Evangeline watched her, the more she could see the signs of anguish all over her pretty face.

Evangeline knew from her experience with Jacks that Fates had different moral lines from those of humans, which made it easier to forgive LaLa. But Evangeline still felt wary of her friend. She could believe LaLa didn’t want her dead, but it was troubling to know that she’d been all right with her being hunted down. “I want to know why you did it. What’s in the Valory that you want so badly?”

“Evangeline, we don’t have time for this,” LaLa said. As she spoke, gems fell from her skirt onto the floor. “The dream is already starting to fracture.”

“I don’t care,” Evangeline said. “I can forgive you for what you did, but if you want me to even think about trusting you again, I need to know why you did it.”

“The Valory is either a treasure chest that protects the Valors’ greatest magical gifts—or it’s a magical prison that is home to an abomination that the Valors created.” LaLa twisted her mouth as if the words had come out all mangled.

“Stupid story curse,” she muttered. “I’m afraid, since I’m not actually in the Hollow, I still can’t tell you what’s inside the arch.”

“Well, you need to tell me something,” Evangeline said. She still wasn’t sure she could believe anything LaLa told her, but she wanted some sort of explanation.

“I might be able to tell you a story.” LaLa started to pace the tavern, her shining boots clacking against the wooden floor. “Once—there was someone I loved more than anyone else. He—” She broke off abruptly and wrenched her mouth as if she couldn’t say what she’d originally planned. “He could shift into a dragon—a large one,” she finally shoved out. “As you know, dragons like hoarding treasures, and I’ve always liked wearing sparkling things, and that was why he found me. He was flying in his dragon form, and he plucked me from the ground, thinking I was treasure.”

LaLa’s face turned wistful as she picked a gem off her glittering skirt. And Evangeline remembered a young man who looked like a dragon at LaLa’s party, dancing with a girl costumed like treasure. “Were there people who dressed like you and your dragon at the ball?”

“Yes. It’s an old story,” LaLa said. “Most people in the North know the bit I just told you, but they don’t remember who the dragon was—” LaLa’s mouth contorted once more, words failing her before she finally said, “My first love is the true reason I’m the Unwed Bride. My grooms never leave me. I always call things off with them because I’ve never been able to let go of my love. I chose to become a Fate because Fates aren’t supposed to be able to love, and I wanted to stop loving him. I wanted to let him go. But I can’t.”

LaLa ran one hand up and down a brown arm covered in a brilliant dragon fire tattoo. Evangeline had always thought the ink was because LaLa had so much spark to her personality, but now Evangeline knew the tattoo was for her very first love.

“I’ve tried to fall for others. But no matter how close I come to falling in love, there’s still only one person that I want to give my heart to. And there’s only one way for that to happen.”

LaLa stopped pacing and looked at Evangeline with eyes full of sparkling tears. LaLa had once confessed she wanted love so badly she cried poison tears. At the time, Evangeline thought she understood. She desperately wanted love, too. But to have found true love and lost it, and yet still have a sliver of hope of getting it back, was another type of torture entirely.

“Your love is in the Valory,” Evangeline guessed.

LaLa didn’t respond, as if she couldn’t even acknowledge the question. But Evangeline imagined she was right— locking a dragon shifter in the Valory fit with the version of the story that said the Valory was an enchanted prison that locked away magical beings.

“Why didn’t you just tell me this story before when I came to your flat?” Evangeline asked.

LaLa’s face fell further. “I never tell this tale. And I wanted to believe that I had finally fallen in love with someone else. I didn’t want to admit that my shiny new engagement was another lie I was telling myself because I couldn’t get over my childhood love. But then I suddenly feared that I was going to lose my only chance at seeing my true love again, and, well—you know the rest.” LaLa’s forehead creased with regretful lines. “I hope you can forgive me for cursing you and Apollo.”

Evangeline hesitated. She was still hurt by what LaLa had done, but she also hurt for LaLa and all that she’d been through.

“Just promise not to do it again.” Evangeline reached forward and gave her friend a hug. “We all make mistakes for love. I was so desperate to hold on to my first love that I made a deal with Jacks that turned an entire wedding party into stone.”

This made LaLa laugh. “I didn’t know Jacks could turn people into stone.”

“He can’t. Poison owed him a favor, and Jacks had him do it.”

LaLa pulled away and gave Evangeline a peculiar look. “Speaking of Jacks, I’m afraid you might be in danger.”

The ground started shaking as soon as she said danger.

LaLa cursed, and when she spoke again, her words came out in a torrent. “Listen to me carefully. You’ve been missing for weeks, Evangeline. We all thought you were dead until Jacks appeared a few days ago. I think he has the mirth stone and it’s clouding his judgment.”

The ground cracked. LaLa jumped back, and more stones fell from her gown into the growing fissure.

“From the look of this dream, it seems he’s tucked you away in the Hollow,” she rushed out. “I’m sure it feels like a haven right now, but as long as you are with Jacks, you’re not safe.” More of the ground began to crumble. “If you think you are safe—it’s only because you’re feeling the effects of the mirth stone as well. But you have to fight it. Find the mirth stone, get it away from Jacks, and get out of the Hollow, before—”

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