“Sorry,” I tell them, “but I don’t even know you. Thanks for the ice pack, I’m fine.”

“Wait!” The one in the witch’s hat calls after me, and as I turn around to give him a really good tongue-lashing, he holds out Ethan’s glasses. They’re a little bent, but not broken. “You might need these.”

I snatch them out of his hand, slide them on, and leave, the ice pack still pressed firmly against my face.

* * *

I FIND I’VE WANDERED TO THE other side of the showroom, where it’s a little quieter. I scroll through the Twitter timeline, trying to find a clue who the thief might be. But I’m at a loss. I’m just lucky they haven’t yet posted a page with my name on it.

I sink down beside the bathroom near the corner, where a guy with a pretzel stand is humming the Starfield theme song.

Of course.

I can’t seem to escape Starfield, and looking at the latest tweet gets me angrier and angrier the longer I sit here. The Starfield side of the internet is exploding with news of General Sond as the new villain.

Vance Reigns.

His agent had been trying to set us up on a date for a while, and I guess now I know why. It’d look like a trading of the mantle, of sorts, from one Starfield villain to another.

I’m being replaced—by a golden knight no less.

Why do I care? I shut off my phone and drop it between my folded legs. Why do I care so much that Starfield announced their sequel villain? It wasn’t like I was holding out hope it would be me.

That’s silly. I don’t want it to be me.

I’m Jessica Stone, an Oscar-nominated teenager. I am a serious actor. I am cool, I am coveted, I am professional.


What else am I?

“You look like someone who could use a pretzel,” says a voice to my right. I glance up to see the pretzel vendor looming over me with an unsalted sample of his wares and a pack of cheesy goop. He motions to the ice pack still pressed against my cheek.

“Oh.” I pat down my jeans and realize with a sudden jolt that I don’t have any money. Or ID. Nothing. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have at least my AmEx on me. “I, ah, I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash…”

“It’s free.”

“But I’m not that hungry—” My stomach growls and my cheeks get hot. I accept the pretzel. I can’t remember the last time I had one. I can’t remember the last time I ate in public without a storm of paparazzi on me. It feels surreal, a warm pretzel in one hand and a container of delicious plastic cheese in the other. I ask the man, “Is there any way to repay you?”

“Nah. I don’t need the money.” He looks out across the showroom. His face seems familiar, but I can’t place from where. With that god-awful peppery beard, I can’t tell if he’s homeless or cosplaying as a lumberjack. “You know, it feels pretty peaceful on this side of the convention.”

“I don’t understand these people.”

He laughs and puts his hands in his pockets. “Haven’t you ever loved something so much, you introduced it to your friends?”

I cock my head. “Does Groupon count?”

He laughs again. “Sure, but any TV shows? Video games? Movies?”

“I really liked Sailor Moon when I was little, but I grew out of it. These people,” I gesture to the crowds, “clearly haven’t grown up. Starfield. Stars Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar whatever. Firefly. I just—I think I’m a little too old for silly sci-fi shows.”

“Or,” the man says, no longer laughing, “you aren’t old enough. Perhaps, young miss, you’re still trying to find out who you are, and seeing these fans so adamant about what they love makes you feel like you’re missing out on something, but you’re too headstrong to admit that maybe you want to be a part of it, too.”

“Yeah, sure.” I slide up the wall to my feet and stubbornly push up my glasses. “Thanks for the pretzel, erm”—I look at his battered nametag—“Henry. I hope you get a lot of business. Bye now.” He gives me the Starfield salute. “Look to the stars!” he calls after me.

Which gives me an idea.

I whirl back around and ask him, “How many years have you been here?”

“Enough,” he answers carefully. “Why?”

I take out my phone, and he comes out from behind his pretzel cart. I show him the photo of the leaked script. “Do you recognize anything in the background?”

He frowns and strokes his beard. “No, but…” He leans closer and squints at the image. “You know, that kind of looks like Amara’s dress. The one in the exhibit.” He points to the blurry image of purple glitter in the top corner of the photo.

Holy shit. It does.

Hope flickers in my chest. I return the phone to my pocket and with a swift “thank you” I’m speed-walking in that direction, clawing con-goers out of my way. I toss the melted ice pack in the trash and set my sights on the exhibit—the one with the fake Prospero ship you can take a photo in and the original costumes from the show.

I keep an eye on the Nox King towering above the booths near the other end of the showroom, where Imogen’s parents supposedly are. As long as I stay away, I should be fine.

People crowd inside the exhibit, taking photos of the costumes, murmuring to themselves how magnificent they are, how well kept after twenty-five years. Natalia Ford and David Singh are supposed to do a panel on Sunday to celebrate the anniversary—

And I remember my mortifying run-in with Natalia and I wince.

He’s here. I know the thief is here.

I take out my phone once more and begin comparing the angles of costume boxes. There are lines of people waiting to take photos with the costumes, and I think I’m photo-bombing the majority of them.

But when I get to Amara’s costume, it makes me pause. It’s mine—well, Natalia’s. The dress that launched a thousand cosplays. From one angle it reminds me of Cinderella’s dress, but from another it’s all points and angles, metallic stitching on the shoulders and across the corset. The folds of the skirt are supposed to billow when the wearer walks—swirling around her feet, full of blues and purples and reds. It is a dress with an entire galaxy sewn into the seams.

I stare a little longer than I should.

And I think—I wonder…

How was I ever supposed to live up to that?

The thought startles me, and I hate how true it feels. So many people at this con are passionate about Amara, about the TV series, about the movie. They love it and connect with it in a way I’ve never connected with anything.

In Hollywood there’s two types of films: popular ones and meaningful ones. Huntress Rising—the Oscar contender—was a gritty tour de force adapted from an obscure comic book. No one went into that film with any sort of emotional baggage. And even if they did, it was an art film on a low budget. They are award-worthy but not viewer-worthy. But being here, hearing these fans celebrate popular films and favorite characters, makes me second-guess that. What is it about those art-house movies that makes them better than The Last Jedi, Black Panther, or Starfield?

I thought all I needed to do to be Amara was read lines and put on a pretty dress, but I failed to see how this princess transformed people’s lives in a way my Oscar-nominated role never will.

There were so many expectations woven into this dress before I ever accepted the role.

I tear myself away, angling the phone just so so that—

“Here, kitty kitty,” someone calls behind me. I spin around and come face to face with—

“Amon!” I say, startled, forgetting that I’m supposed to be Imogen.

He glances at me briefly and then looks away. He’s rubbing the back of his hands, where there are angry red scratches. “Sorry, can’t sign right now. Have you seen a cat?”

My own director doesn’t recognize me.

It takes a moment to realize what he asked. “A cat?”

“Yes, yes,” he replies impatiently. “Hairless? Looks like some ungodly demon spawn? Never mind. I’ll find it.” He resituates a stack of papers I assume is the con program under his arm and wanders off. Then I remember that Natalia Ford had a hairless cat when she walked in on my interview. Could it be the same one?

But what would Amon be doing with her cat?

Anyway, I don’t see the hairless nightmare or any sign of my thief. They’re probably long gone by now. But knowing they were here helps me feel a little better, even though this is beginning to feel like an impossible quest.

I stand in the exhibit for a moment longer, my gaze finding Carmindor’s original uniform. Huh, Darien was right—it is a different shade of blue. This one, the original one, is deeper somehow, more plum than navy, so rich that even after twenty-five years it hasn’t lost its color.

I bite into the top of my pretzel as I study the uniform when a kid comes up to me. He can’t be much older than nine, maybe ten, dressed as Carmindor, and he squints at me with a deep frown.

“You look like Amara,” he says decidedly.

My eyebrows jerk up.

He turns to his dad and says, “Doesn’t she look like Amara?”

At the sound of the character’s name, half the people in the exhibit turn to look at me, and I swallow my mouthful of pretzel with a dry gulp. “No, I’m not—”