I look up, along with half of the crowd, and see a particularly tall and muscular guy coming toward me, his brown hair almost contained in his backward snapback, a curl twisting out of the opening. His arms are flapping in the air, as if he’s waving someone down. He’s looking directly at me.

“Hey! Monster! You wouldn’t believe what just happened!” he shouts again.

I glance around to see if anyone is responding.

No, no they are not.

That leaves only one possibility.

The girl selling plushies looks at me and says, “I think he means you.”

“I was afraid of that,” I reply. Imogen definitely didn’t tell me about him, or the person with him—ebony skinned, slender and waspish, dressed in a half cape and pointed witch’s hat, an umbrella resting on his shoulder. He’s cosplaying as someone, but hell if I know who.

And I am definitely not going to stick around just so they and the plushie seller can find out that I am most certainly not “Monster” and am, in fact, that girl who plays Princess Amara.

I slip my phone into my pocket and take a step backward, and then another.

“Monster! Monster?” the muscular guy shouts. His thick eyebrows furrow. He’s about twenty feet from me and—

All right. I’m leaving.

I take off out of Artists’ Alley as fast as I can, pushing through a group of people dressed as angels, and to my absolutely awful luck, Imogen’s friends pursue.

Here’s the thing: I’m terrible at running (especially in heels—hello, I tripped on the freaking red carpet). Never mind sports. Tennis, softball, track. I am horrible at literally every form of exercise. I’m even bad at the elliptical, which is something no human being in the world is bad at, except me. And that is why I never do my own stunts. It’s just not something I’m good at.

So when I take off running out of Artists’ Alley, I am praying that my knees don’t buckle and I am able to worm my way between enough people to lose Hunky and his friend in my wake. I’m lithe. Just have to pretend I’m a dancer and swirl through the crowd. Plus, it’s much easier to run in flats.

My shoes slap hard against the tiled floor as I turn onto a skybridge, dodging under a cosplayer with a six-foot wingspan.

They call again, “Mo! Mo, watch o—”

I’m hanging a left at the end of the skybridge when my foot slams into the long purple tail of someone dressed as the Nox King (of course). I pitch forward and slam into the ground.

THIS MANY PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BE able to fit inside a room this size, although I know, from being a plebian squeezed into the back row last year, that indeed they can. I was smooshed between a Deadpool and a comics collector when the cast of the fantasy series Blades of Valor, starring the dreamy Vance Reigns, played an impromptu game of Never Have I Ever onstage. Vance had put a finger down for “Never have I ever had a crush on Ron Swanson.” (“We’re all on a sexual spectrum, and mine is girls and Ron Swanson,” he clarified later.) I thought that was going to be the highlight of my life in this room.

Alas, I was gravely mistaken.

I peek out between the black stage curtains, pulling at the high collar of my—well, Jess’s—dress. It’s navy blue with white trim, and my hose is a shimmery black. The blue isn’t the right Starfield shade, the hose is demonic, and don’t get me started on the heels. Given her history with these torture devices, you would think she’d have sworn them off long ago.

Apparently Jessica Stone is one of those people who double down.

So now I have to worry about tripping in front of three thousand people. How nice of her.

Is it hot in here or is it just me? I’m trying not to sweat too much and keep my arms chicken-winged from my sides so I don’t leave pit stains.

Starflame, how does she operate under these conditions?

Her grumpy assistant sits down in one of the reserved seats in the front row, shrugging into a casual dark-gray suit jacket. Ugh, doesn’t he know he’s at a con? The only people dressed in suits are Men in Black, any of the butler shojo and shonen anime, and occasionally a Doctor, depending on the season. Clearly, Ethan is cosplaying as a douche with a giant stick up his butt. But I can’t let some too-cool-for-school wannabe Bond ruin what’ll be the best days of my life.

“I’m probably going to complain—this is ridiculous,” a voice behind me, well, complains. It’s male, all-American. Calvin Rolfe. I look over my shoulder and there he is with a Starbucks cup, wearing a brown bomber jacket, his ginger hair swooped up into a wave. The freckles on his nose look more prominent without movie makeup, and they draw together when he scrunches his nose. “A panel every day?”

“It’s ExcelsiCon, which started as a Starfield con. What else do you expect?” Darien replies—the Darien Freeman. Prince Carmindor. Now that I’m not looking at him in the spotlight, he looks a lot more…normal? I don’t know how that’s possible since he looks like freaking Carmindor even in real life—curly black hair and smooth brown skin and eyelashes that go on for days. But there is something decidedly nonchalant about him. Also, he isn’t as tall as I thought.

Or maybe I’m just a giant in these heels.

Calvin rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, and your girlfriend’s tied to it, so of course you’ll take the con’s side.”

I’ve never seen Darien Freeman glare more ferociously.

Calvin raises his hands in defeat. “All I’m saying is that we should only do one panel at a thing like this. We’re busy people with busy lives. Our time is money and, uh, we’re not getting paid nearly enough.”

“They’re our fans. It’s the least we can do.”

“Can you get your fanboy head out of your fanboy a—”

“I think it’s really cool,” I interject before my common sense can reel me in and tell me it’s a trap.

Darien and Calvin look over at me, surprised either that I spoke up or that I’m defending Darien and this con, I’m not sure which.

I clear my throat and tug on a lock of wig hair. “I mean, they’re all here to see us, right? And this panel’s about villains in Starfield. It should be fun.”

“Except our Nox King super isn’t here,” Calvin points out. “Why isn’t Robert coming again?”

“The great Robert Thomas Eddington is shooting King Lear in Scotland as we speak,” Darien says begrudgingly. He gives me a curious look. Oh no, did I do Jess’s voice wrong or something? Remember the tilt, the toneless accent, the drawl.

Calvin sighs. “Ugh, why am I here, wasting this perfectly good Friday? Euci isn’t a villain.”

“Actually, in episode—” I stop myself before I can recite the exact episode in question, because Jess wouldn’t know “—in an episode, I think, when you nearly get everyone killed. With, like…a lightsaber or something.”

It pains me to say lightsaber. In the episode, Euci becomes possessed by the Balu’atho, an ancient Noxian blade, and goes absolutely bonkers on the ship. What we don’t find out until the end is that the artifact only channels the darkness that’s already inside a person’s heart. Euci is terribly jealous of Carmindor—sometimes so much that he does become a villain.

It’s only fair. I mean, I get it. Carmindor is damn near perfect—like my brother, I guess. It’s impossible to live up to that.

“She’s not wrong,” Darien adds, giving me another unreadable look. “And I’m here because I’m the only one of us who actually watches the show, but apparently…”

“Oh no, I haven’t watched it,” I quickly lie. “I read the Wikipedia.”


Calvin slaps him on the shoulder. “Thanks for taking one for the team, buddy!”

Our moderator—a chipper older woman with pastel rainbow hair—calls us over, telling us that we can make our way onto the stage. Calvin goes first, and I begin to follow, but then I feel a hand on my shoulder.

I jump.

It’s Amon Wilkins.

He grins, all Hollywood-white teeth and dashing surfer-bro swagger, looking like he could be in the next remake of Point Break. “So, how’re you enjoying the con so far?” he asks, putting his phone into his back pocket. The moment he does, it dings with a notification.

Then again, and again—and a shadow of annoyance crosses his eyes, until he decides to ignore it. His gaze settles on me, prompting me to answer.

I snap out of my stupor. “Um—yeah—great! Much great. Very fine. Wow.”

Oh, starflame, I’m supposed to be acting like Jessica Stone, not Doge.

Amon laughs and squeezes my shoulder, and a weird feeling reverberates through me as his phone lets out another series of dings. He is going to silence that before the panel, right? No one likes those people. “Hope the reading material was to your liking. I have a feeling today is going to be great. I’ve got a killer surprise,” he adds, and follows Calvin up the stairs to the stage.

Reading material? Was Jess—I mean me—supposed to read something for this panel?

Darien lingers on the steps, waiting for me. I quickly put my hands on my hips, elbows out, praying that he doesn’t notice how badly I’m sweating and that this is just…a pose I struck. Just to strike it. Because Jessica Stone doesn’t sweat. She barely breathes.