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Chapter no 9

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

Evangeline fought to open her eyes, but her lids were impossibly heavy. She wasn’t sure if she was awake or asleep. She’d thought Jacks had been there before it all went black. But the arms that held her now were scorching hot—or maybe she was the one burning up.

She could hear conversation, but it was barely there. Mostly low words and growls of two arguing voices, with a few scattered words.

“She … venom.”

“… human … risk…” “… want … die…”

“No—”

Her captor tightened his grip, pressing her against a chest clad in leather that smelled of metal and smoke. Definitely not Jacks.

Evangeline felt a sudden rush of alarm. “Let … go,” she managed.

“Relax,” said a voice she didn’t recognize. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“No.” She tried to claw at her kidnapper, but she couldn’t move her fingers. Her body was failing. She was made of useless limbs and broken eyelids. Her skin was drying blood, and her thoughts were turning gray.

But there was one thought brighter and more frightening than all the others. If she was injured, then so was Apollo. He was bleeding somewhere else, probably outside, in the dark garden.

“Apollo,” she finally managed. “Prince Apollo … needs … help.”

Her captor tensed. Then she heard another voice, so quiet she knew it was in her head. I’m sorry, Little Fox. Apollo isn’t who you need to worry about. He’s—

Evangeline started to lose consciousness once more before she caught the rest of Jacks’s thoughts. Although she knew what he was going to say. Prince Apollo was the cause of her injuries.

 

 

Seconds passed as if they were hours. Evangeline could not stay awake for long, but when she did, the pain extended every moment into a century, a lifetime of hurt in exchange for one moment of consciousness.

She was just aware enough to feel cool arms cradling her now. Jacks’s arms. Everything was fuzzy and distant, but she knew, somehow, that these arms held her closer than the hot arms ever had.

And yet …

Evangeline found herself drifting away from the arms and into a dream that felt like the pages of a story yellowed with age: The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox.

Evangeline had always loved this story, though as she returned to it now, it was tainted with a sadness she could not recall feeling before.

The tale began the same as it always did, with the most gifted archer in the Magnificent North. He was young and handsome and admired, and he’d been hired to hunt a fox.

It was the craftiest fox he’d ever met, and he hunted it for weeks. The Fox would catch him sleeping—it bit his ears and chewed his shoes and made his life misery—but the Archer never managed to capture it.

The only joy the Archer had while hunting the Fox was on the days he saw the girl. He didn’t know her name at first— she was just a pretty peasant who lived in the forest—but he found himself wanting to chase after her instead of the Fox.

She talked to him in riddles, and when he got them right, she’d bring him little treats.

He slowed his hunt for the Fox, wanting a reason to stay in the forest with this peasant girl. She was clever and sweet, and she made him laugh.

But the peasant girl had a secret. She could change into a fox—the very fox he was hired to hunt.

After learning this, the Archer believed those who had hired him had made a mistake. He returned the coins he’d been given and told them the Fox was really a girl.

But his employers already knew this, and they were not happy that he refused to hunt her. So they put a curse on him, one that compelled him to hunt the girl that he now loved.

Evangeline’s heart began to race at this part. Whenever her mother had told her this tale, she always forgot what she was saying right before she finished the story. And now, Evangeline was starting to reach the end.

She could feel the Archer’s confidence, mingling with his fear, as he sat in the forest outside his beloved’s cottage.

The Archer had always been so very sure of himself and what he could do. He’d never been given a task he could not complete. There was no beast he could not track, no target he could not hit. He could shoot an apple from the hand of a friend at a thousand paces away—while it was being tossed

in the air! He was a legend, he was the Archer, and he would have sacrificed it all to save her.

Yet, even as he thought the words, the Archer looked down to see he was already notching an arrow, getting ready to shoot the girl he loved as soon as she stepped out of her cottage.

The Archer threw down the bow and cracked the arrow on his knee, wishing it was as easy to break this spiteful curse. He’d been told it would only lift when he killed the girl. The one way to save her would be to stay away. But he couldn’t believe they were never meant to be. There had to be an … o … ther …

The dream dissolved, like raindrops washing away peddler chalk on a sidewalk. Evangeline fought to hold on to it. She wanted to know how it ended. But the harder she tried to remain in the dream, the more it began to fade, until she couldn’t remember what she’d been dreaming at all.

 

 

Everything hurt when she woke. She was no longer being held by hot arms or cold arms or any arms at all. She was on her back, every inch of her burning, aching, despite the softness of the bed she’d been placed in. Her eyes fluttered open slowly, adjusting to the light. There was just enough for Evangeline to see a set of heavy cagelike iron bars crisscrossing above her.

She jolted upright.

Her wounded shoulder screamed in pain, and she fell gracelessly back on the mattress.

“Welcome back, Princess.” The voice was velvet smooth, and it did not take long for Evangeline to identify the source.

Chaos, the Vampire Lord of Spies and Assassins, leaned casually against one dark bedpost with the ease of a being that had nothing to fear.

Evangeline tried to muster a bit of bravado, but she felt instantly immobilized. She now knew why there were cagelike bars over her bed. She was in Chaos’s underground castle.

Evangeline had only visited once before, but she vividly remembered all the human-size cages hanging amid the old-world elegance of the halls. She shuddered to think why she might be here.

Frantically, she sifted back through her memories. The last several hours were blurry, until she reached the moment right before she passed out. She’d been inside Wolf Hall, bleeding everywhere, and Jacks had said her name, Evangeline, not Little Fox. Then he’d said he was sorry. Was this why? Because he’d given her over to Chaos?

“Am I a prisoner?” she asked.

“You can leave anytime,” Chaos said. “But I doubt you’ll get far on that injured leg.” He nodded toward her wounded thigh.

The vampire’s face was impossible to read due to the cursed bronze helm he wore. It wrapped around his forehead and jaw, covering his mouth so that he could not bite her. Yet she still felt far from safe in his castle.

Evangeline gritted her teeth and looked about the room for an escape. It was around the size of her suite at Wolf Hall, with a fireplace full of candles, dark velvet lounges for sitting, and a dresser for clothes and jewels. It also had a great rounded door, but it was on the opposite end, a distance that seemed insurmountable with her wounded leg. But she could not stay in this bed. She needed to get out of here. She needed to figure out why Apollo had attacked her.

She didn’t believe that Apollo had wanted to hurt her. That was clearer to her now. He’d looked pained, anguished. He’d told her to run. He’d tried to save her before he’d tried to kill her. She needed to figure out why.

Evangeline started to push down her sheets, but stopped as she realized that her clothing had been removed. She was practically naked. Instinctively, she clutched the sheets tighter. She didn’t even want to contemplate who had undressed her. She wore nothing, save for a short, thin silk slip and the cloth bandages that wrapped around her wounded shoulder and thigh.

She couldn’t get out of bed like this. Chaos might not be able to bite her, but if they were in his lair, then other vampires could—and they probably would. Walking around in a scrap of silk felt like an open invitation.

“If I really can leave, then I’d like some clothes and shoes,” she said.

Chaos laughed softly, the sound deceptively young. He appeared just a few years older than she was, but Jacks had once told her that Chaos was as old as the North. “I may have exaggerated when I said you could leave at any time.”

The rounded door opened with a groan that betrayed its age. Then, silently, Jacks stepped inside.

Their eyes collided across the room. His gaze slowly lowered to the sheets that she held over her barely there slip. But then, before she even had time to blush, he looked away.

Evangeline felt a strange stab of disappointment as Jacks went back to tossing the shimmering black apple that he held in his hand.

The cloak he’d been wearing earlier was gone. She remembered that he’d carried her, but there was no blood on his soft gray doublet.

“Have you told her the good news?” he asked cheerfully. “Not yet,” Chaos replied.

Evangeline divided a look between them. Confused did not begin to describe how she felt. Jacks loathed vampires— or at least that’s what she’d thought. The last time she’d

been here with him, he’d seemed to hate every moment. Now Jacks appeared completely at ease, and the comfortable way that he and Chaos spoke made it seem as if they were almost friends.

“What’s going on?” Evangeline asked.

But even as she asked it, the pieces fell into place. Jacks had told her that if she didn’t agree to open the arch within a day, she would really hate him.

This must have been why. Jacks was working with Chaos. Evangeline flashed back to her conversation with Luc,

how he’d revealed that Chaos was the one who’d helped him steal the throne. It was bizarre to imagine that Jacks would be involved with this ruse as well. But after learning Luc was the heir, Evangeline’s first thought had been that she needed to wake up Apollo more than ever. Perhaps, if she’d had more time, she would have turned to Jacks.

It still seemed extreme, but Jacks was willing to go to impossible lengths to get what he wanted.

“She looks confused,” Chaos said.

Jacks stopped tossing his apple and turned to Evangeline. “Your husband almost killed you. Because of him, you have a ruined shoulder and deeply wounded leg. Left to human methods, it will take your shoulder weeks to heal. Your leg will take longer and will probably never be the same. There’s also the risk of death from infection. But Chaos has kindly offered to help the healing process along.”

A female vampire with dark hair and red lips entered the chamber and approached the bed where Evangeline lay.

“No!” She clutched her sheets tighter, understanding dawning as the female bared her fangs.

There were two types of vampire bites: ones that allowed vampires to merely feed, and ones that infected their prey with vampire venom. Vampire venom had tremendous healing properties, but it also had the potential to change

the infected person into a vampire. Being bitten didn’t mean a person would have to change—any human infected with venom had to drink human blood by dawn to transform into a vampire.

But Evangeline had seen what the vampire venom did to humans, how it turned them desperate enough to break cages and locks just for one bite. Evangeline had no desire to be a vampire now, but what if that changed once she was infected?

“We should get started,” Chaos said. “This won’t be easy, but we have shackles to restrain you.” He motioned toward a wall. In between a pair of velvet drapes, Evangeline saw two sets of chains with manacles. “Or, if you prefer, we could put you in a cage?”

“No.” Evangeline vehemently shook her head. “I don’t want to do this at all. Let me heal on my own.” She looked pleadingly at Jacks.

He bit down carelessly on his apple and turned to Chaos. “I think you should use a cage.”

As soon as Jacks said the word, Chaos reached for a lever embedded in the wall. Bars instantly crashed down around her bed, trapping her inside.

“No!” It all happened so fast, Evangeline didn’t even know she’d screamed until she heard her voice echo through the room.

She tried to grip the steel, but that was a mistake. Chaos grabbed her wrist through the bars. “I’m doing you a favor.”

Holding her tight, he offered her arm to the female vampire.

Evangeline struggled and cried out again.

Teeth flashed, and then she felt them sink painfully into her wrist.

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