PART II: An Unkindness of Stories – Chapter no 22

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

Jacks had the travel carriage of a villain. The exterior was smooth matte black, perfect for blending into dark alleys and shadows, yet it had just enough gold trim around the wheels and the windows to be unexpectedly tempting.

This was not the same coach they’d ridden in before, when she’d met with him under the misguided hope that he would remove the love spell he’d placed on Apollo.

Inside this carriage, there was plush black carpet on the floor, thick black velvet cushions on the benches, black lacquered panels for the walls, and more hints of gold edging the icy windows in a decorative pattern of swirling thorns.

Evangeline felt particularly bright, dressed in the pink velvet gown that she’d picked out last night.

Slaughterwood Castle was a full day’s journey to the east of Valorfell, and the farther she and Jacks traveled, the colder it became. The world outside the windows was a wonderland of white and ice and pale blue winter birds with wings that turned to frosted lilac when they flew.

She might have asked Jacks about the birds, or which part of the country they were now in, but he was asleep.

His golden head rested against the window, only moving when the coach went over a bump in the road. Trying not to

stare—because she wouldn’t be surprised if he could sense it, even in his sleep—Evangeline went back to studying the sheet of clues that she’d found in Chaos’s library.



Across from her, Jacks stirred.

Evangeline slowly lifted her eyes from the page in time to see his shoulders shudder—as if he was having a bad dream.

She wondered, briefly, what sort of things might haunt Jacks. He had once told her the story of the girl who’d made his heart beat again—the one girl who had survived his fatal kiss. She was supposed to be his one true love, but instead she stabbed him in the heart and chose to love another. At the time, Evangeline had believed that was Jacks’s greatest

tragedy, but now she suspected there were even deeper wounds in his past.

Once again, she thought about the picture she’d seen of the Merrywood Three. She knew Jacks said they had died and that the storybooks lied. Yet she couldn’t completely dispel the idea that Jacks was part of this trio.

If only she knew more about them. All she knew was that Lyric Merrywood was the son of a lord.

The archer wasn’t named, but she was still drawn to the idea that he was the Archer from The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox.

Then there was Castor Valor, the prince.

According to the stories, all the Valors had been beheaded. But if anyone could have escaped death, it would have been Jacks. And if Jacks had been the only Valor to survive, if he’d lived to see his whole family killed, then of course it would have destroyed him. It also explained why he would want to open the Valory Arch—as one of the Valors, he would know better than anyone what the Valory contained.

Jacks rolled his neck and made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan. He was waking up.

Evangeline turned her gaze out the window before he opened his eyes and caught her staring.

Outside, the scenery had shifted. She wondered if they’d taken a wrong turn. Gone were the snowdrifts and winter birds. Murky gray replaced the blue of the skies and turned the snow on the ground to sludge.

In her father’s curiosity shop, Evangeline had once opened a very fine-looking crate of imported storybooks from the Icehaven Isles. The covers were lovely mint-green leather, with rose-gold embossing and the most beautiful foil designs. She’d felt impossibly eager to open them and see what sort of tales were inside. But all she’d found was

ash, as if someone had set a match to the center of the pages and burned away each word.

This place reminded her of those books, but instead of words, it was color and feeling and hope that had been vanquished—it was green needles on trees and red painted doors and blue cobblestones. Even the color of the snow had been leached away, turning it a despairing shade of gray.

In the distance, it looked as if there might have been a village once, but now there were only the bones of dead cottages and abandoned pieces of a township. The road changed as well, turning bumpy and craggy and shaking the carriage as it wended its way through a forest of skeletal trees without any leaves.

Evangeline shivered. She hadn’t realized until that moment that the coach had been growing colder and colder. The heated bricks at her feet had lost their warmth, and now they felt like ice. She tried to pull her cloak tighter, but it didn’t help. It was as if this chill were a living thing. Fog seeped in through the cracks around the carriage door, smelling faintly of decay. It covered her boots and froze her toes as the coach rocked over a great gash in the road that nearly jostled her out of her seat.

“Don’t fret, Little Fox, it’s just this place,” Jacks said, but his voice lacked its usual swagger.

“Where are we?” Evangeline asked. Her voice sounded brittle—a frightened thing that wanted to close the curtains and look away. Yet she could not take her eyes off the unsettling scene.

As the carriage kept rumbling on, the village disappeared, and for a stretch, there was nothing but the charred remains of trees. She thought she perhaps saw some sort of inn still intact, but the place was too far away,

and then they were nearing a sign that took the breath right from her lungs.


The sign was as desolate as everything else, chipped and faded, and as sad as the feeling that was growing inside her. Her cheeks became wet with tears. She might never have been here before, but the sign reminded her of the way the book described House Merrywood—the Merrywoods were said to be joyful, generous people, and their home was a place of warmth and love. But all that remained of this house was the carcass of a once magnificent staircase that climbed out of a great pile of ash into nothing.

“Here’s the answer to your questions about the Merrywood Three,” said Jacks darkly.

“They did this?” Evangeline asked.

“No. This is where they all died.” He turned away from the window. He didn’t meet her gaze, but she could see the light in his eyes was gone. His gaze was now as gray as the world outside of the window.

Evangeline didn’t know if Jacks was actually feeling an emotion that resembled something human or if it was just the power of this terrible place.

Then she remembered Tiberius’s words about the arch stones: I saw the ruins—I felt the horrible hollowing magic. Just bringing the stones together is potentially cataclysmic. She hadn’t wanted to believe him then. She’d held one of the stones. It had felt powerful, but not catastrophically so. And yet what else could have caused this sort of desolation? What was powerful enough to destroy not just a place but all hope and joy?

“What exactly happened here?” she asked. “Is this the Great House that was destroyed by the Valory Arch stones?”

Jacks’s eyes snapped back to hers. “How did you hear that story?”

“I must have read it in a book.”

“You’re lying.” His lips pressed into a fine line. “That’s Protectorate rhetoric. The stones didn’t do this. They’re powerful, but this was not their destruction.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know what really happened here.”

Evangeline swiped the tears from her eyes and did her best to narrow them at Jacks.

He responded with a sliver of a laugh. “As much as I enjoy the theatrics, if you don’t believe me, all you have to do is ask what happened.”

Suddenly, she felt even more skeptical. Jacks was never forthcoming with information. But she wasn’t about to pass up a chance to question him. “What really happened, then?” He turned back to the window. For a minute, she didn’t think he’d respond. Then he said in an unexpectedly muted voice, “Lyric Merrywood, son of Lord Merrywood, had the

misfortune of falling in love with Aurora Valor.”

Evangeline was familiar with Lyric Merrywood. And of course, she also knew the famed Aurora Valor, the most beautiful girl to ever live.

“Lyric,” Jacks went on in that same reticent voice, “was Lord Merrywood’s only son, and he was too good-hearted to realize what a mistake it was to love Aurora Valor.”

“Why was it a mistake?” Evangeline asked. “I thought Aurora was beautiful and sweet and kind and everything a princess should be.” The last words came out a little bitter, and Evangeline realized she felt an inexplicable dislike of the princess, though as far as she knew, Aurora Valor had done nothing wrong aside from sound perfect in every tale.

“You don’t like her,” Jacks guessed.

“She just sounds too good to be true.”

“Lyric certainly didn’t think so,” said Jacks in a tone that didn’t reveal if he agreed or disagreed. “He was so desperately in love with her, he dismissed the dangerous fact that she was engaged to Vengeance Slaughterwood.”

“Aurora was his bride-to-be!” Evangeline exclaimed.

Jacks looked at her askance. “That’s what I just said.”

“I know—I just got a little excited because I saw a picture of Vengeance in a book, but his fiancée wasn’t identified.”

Jacks appeared briefly surprised by this before continuing. “Lyric said the engagement didn’t matter because it wasn’t a love match: Aurora and Vengeance had been betrothed since Aurora’s birth. Vengeance’s father, Bane, had been Wolfric Valor’s greatest friend and ally. So, when Wolfric became king, he pledged that one of his daughters would marry Bane’s eldest son.

“Aurora tried to break off the wedding to marry Lyric, but her father refused. Wolfric said Aurora was a silly girl who knew nothing of love.” Jacks’s mouth twisted wryly, and again, she couldn’t tell if he felt the same or not. “Aurora knew that no one ever won a fight with Wolfric. So she told her father that she would go through with the marriage to Vengeance. But on the morning of the wedding, she ran away. That was when Vengeance learned of her affair with Lyric Merrywood, and let’s just say Vengeance lived up to his name.…”

The coach rumbled forward as Jacks trailed off. They’d left the gray and the ruins behind, returning to a world of crisp, white snow. The sun was out again, shining its cheery light and adding flecks of iridescent color to the ice on the trees.

Jacks turned away from the window as if he couldn’t stand the sight of it all.

Or perhaps it was the sign up ahead that he didn’t wish to see.


Welcome, if you are a guest!

Beware, if you are not …

Evangeline doubted she would have felt warmed by this sign under any circumstances. But after Jacks’s story, the greeting felt especially unsettling.

She reminded herself that the story curse could have twisted part of Jacks’s tale. But his story explained the two different engagement pictures she’d seen of Vengeance, and Jacks hadn’t struggled for words. His quiet voice had possessed an understated confidence as if he’d not just heard the story but had been there to experience it.

Jacks had repeatedly told her he didn’t care about anyone or anything. But it was hard to believe him right now. Maybe that’s why he’d turned his head away from the light—so it wouldn’t shine on him and illuminate how he really felt.

The thought made something inside of her ache for him. Before she could think better of it, Evangeline leaned across the carriage and put her hand atop his.

Jacks sighed as if disappointed. “Don’t feel sorry for me, Little Fox. I told you, this place makes everyone sad.” He pulled his hand away with a scowl. But it couldn’t quite hide the sorrow that was still deep in his eyes.

She couldn’t help but feel for him. Again, she considered the idea that Jacks was hurting because he was Castor Valor. The last of the Valors, the only survivor of a royal family whom the people of the North had seemed to love until they’d brutally killed them, and friend to a young man who had also been murdered. But Castor Valor hadn’t been in this story, and neither had the third member of the Merrywood Three, the Archer.

Evangeline might not have pressed the matter. But Jacks had made it clear he didn’t want to be treated with care.

And the more she thought about the story, the more she wondered if Jacks had only told it to her so that she’d feel as if he’d opened up and she wouldn’t ask more questions.

“Your story didn’t mention Lyric’s friends—Castor Valor and the Archer. Did Vengeance Slaughterwood kill them as well?”

“Only Castor,” Jacks said flatly. “He was the noble one out of the group. He’d tried to warn Lyric of the attack, but he ended up getting killed as well.”

Evangeline watched Jacks’s handsome face closely for any sign that he was lying—a flicker of something that would tell her he was really Castor—but Jacks could be so difficult to read sometimes. All she sensed was that he fit somewhere into this story and that it had something to do with why he wanted to open the Valory Arch.

“If you really weren’t a member of the Merrywood Three, then how do you know all of this?”

“Everyone who was alive then knew the story. Aurora Valor was a princess, Castor was a prince, and Lyric and Vengeance were sons of lords.”

“What about the Archer?”

“He was no one,” Jacks said coldly, “except maybe to the Fox. But I’ve already told you how that story ended.” He gave her a smile that was all teeth, as if warning her away.

For a second, she wondered if perhaps she was wrong about him being Castor. Maybe Jacks was actually the Archer, and he wanted to open the Valory Arch to somehow save the Fox.

The thought should have felt romantic, but instead, it struck a false chord with Evangeline.

“Now,” Jacks said sharply, “it’s my turn to ask questions, and I want to know where you heard that ridiculous story about the arch stones destroying one of the Great Houses.”

Evangeline hesitated.

“Come now, Little Fox, you can’t expect me to tell you things if you won’t tell me things.”

“I went to see Tiberius,” she confessed. “You what?” he snarled.

“Oh no—you don’t get to be upset. You were gone. You wrote me a note that was practically two words and left me alone in a castle full of vampires.”

“And because of that, you just thought you’d go have a chat with the person who tried to kill you twice?”

“I wasn’t having any luck in the library. I thought he might know where the stones were hidden.”

Jacks’s only response was a look that said he wanted to pull over the coach, take her up to an isolated tower, and throw away the key.

“He’s locked in a prison,” she said. “It was perfectly safe.”

“He wants you dead. That’s a powerful motive to try to escape.”

“But he didn’t,” Evangeline persisted. “What else was I supposed to do? You said yourself the books all lie.”

Jacks raked a violent hand through his hair. “Did Tiberius suggest we go to this party?”

“No, he refused to help, even after I told him that my life was linked to his brother’s.”

“You told him that?” Jacks’s nostrils flared. “If Tiberius shares this with anyone from the Protectorate, they’ll find and kill Apollo in order to kill you.”

For a flash, Jacks looked like he wanted to kill someone, too.

“Calm down, Jacks. When I visited Tiberius at the Tower, it looked as if the Protectorate had abandoned him. Even if I’m wrong, I truly don’t think that Tiberius would put his brother in danger again. He wouldn’t help me open the arch,

but he looked conflicted about it. I don’t believe he really wants to kill his brother.”

“You give people too much credit,” Jacks grumbled. “And you should have told me this right away.”

“Why, so you could kill him?” “Yes.”

“No, Jacks. You can’t go around murdering people because they’re a problem.”

“You can’t save everyone and yourself. How do you think you’re going to get those stones?” His voice turned hard and a little mean. “Do you believe the owners will just hand them over because you give them a pretty smile? If the stones are here, people are going to die at this party.”

“No—I’m not going to kill anyone to get the stones. And neither are you.”

“Then why are we even here?” Jacks sneered.

The coach rolled over the mighty drawbridge that led to Slaughterwood Castle, and Evangeline took it as an excuse to look away from Jacks. This was exactly why she was always reminding herself not to trust him. Of course he would think the only way to get what they wanted was to murder someone for it.

Evangeline could not let Jacks ruin this. She knew he was bitter about the past, and she didn’t blame him for that. She also wondered if he thought LaLa’s engagement didn’t matter because as the Unwed Bride she was likely not to get married. But Evangeline still refused to believe that. In a world where there were Fates and magic and curses and prophecies, Evangeline couldn’t help but believe there was also the potential for everyone to find a happily ever after.

She squared her shoulders and turned back to Jacks with new determination. “LaLa is my friend, this is her engagement party, and it is going to be magical. No one is

going to die at this celebration. You are not going to kill people while we’re here.”

Jacks leaned back in his seat and picked up his apple, mouth twisting into a sullen frown. “That’s a terrible plan, Little Fox.” He took a wide bite, sharp teeth tearing at the fruit. “Someone is going to die. It will either be one of them or one of us.”

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