Stella Nena was brought up in a dreamy cream cottage by the forest lake, living off elderberry juice, poinsettia jam, and eucalyptus bread. She dressed in silky soft robes of swan feathers—all given willingly, of course—and swept the soot from the fireplace while singing. The same fireplace that would squeal steaming embers when she came to the rocking chair every evening, prop her feet up on the cotton-wood cushion, and bury her face between the yellowing pages of a large tome.
This was the fantasy she concocted. A pretty picture in her head. Stella Nena, dreamer girl and magic master. Spending her days in blissful, book-filled solace.
In truth, she lived in Seattle, where the skyscrapers were the only beauties comparable to high-flying dreams. Where the sunsets, paintings of the sky, were the only things remotely related to magic. Where the honking and bustling of the city destroyed the quiet, mystical worlds Stella Nena loved.
After a long day at work, she would lock herself in the apartment, close the door to her bedroom, and flop on her couch with The Book.
The Book—the only magic tale that had stayed with her through the years. Since she had started reading at five, Stella Nena had devoured chapter books with pride and hunger. Some stories stayed, while others flitted away, riding the winds that spun outside her nonexistent, magical cream cottage.
One day, she had picked up a worn copy of Spies in the Empire from the corner bookstore—perhaps the only place that sold books in west Seattle. Six years later, the old book was her go-to novel. The only thing that would guide her through every obstacle.
And yes, Stella Nena’s friends would tease her and call her a bookworm for reading the same book a thousand times over. But the so-called bookworm took it as a compliment. If anyone of them read a chapter of Spies in the Empire, they would change their mind.
If only a real-life Darren Danz existed. Stella Nena believed in true love. She believed she’d find the right person one day, even if they weren’t Darren Danz.
Today, she had a splitting headache. Richard had yelled at her in front of all the interns, holding back no insult. She remembered his beet-red face contorting, twisting, and almost growling like the rabid dogs from Spies in the Empire. Stella Nena couldn’t stop herself when she told him that thought precisely.
It was true—no living human could foam at the mouth like that. But Richard didn’t like that. Richard didn’t like that at all.
It’s a miracle I’m not firing you on the spot, he had yelled. It’s a miracle you’re here at all. Get out of my office!
She had fled the office, shame-faced and eyes burning holes in her sockets.
Samar had tried to catch up with her. Come back, she had pleaded. He’s your boss. He’s not supposed to say that. He could get in lots of trouble for verbal abuse—you know it, Stella Nena. So get your ass back in there. Now.
But she had been unable to do what wanted from her. Standing up for herself came with a cost—her image, the shy, sweet girl who’d come to the publishing house with hopes of having a bestselling fantasy series. The girl who was so kind that no one could muster the strength to turn her down.
Ruining that picture-perfect identity would destroy her dreams. So she had looked at Samar straight in the eye. Smiled tightly. And told her that she would come back after a bathroom break.
Crying in public was the most shameful thing. And Stella Nena had never done it, not since fourth grade, when Ryan Atkins had kicked a soccer ball into her stomach so hard that she puked.
Samar, thankfully, hadn’t pressed further and left briskly.
So Stella Nena had gone to the bathroom, wiped her tears firmly, and made her way to her cramped, two-seater Chevrolet. Had raced to her apartment. Stifled her tears once more when making her way up the steps.
Locked the door and settled in with Spies in the Empire.
The fire crackled slightly, giving her an ounce of the warmth, she needed right now.
Stella Nena traced the pages and started to read.
Darren Danz was the empire’s most wanted. He evaded town police and left all the guards cursing. He should have been noticeable amongst the locals with his silver-rose hair, pointed ears, and smiling amber-gold eyes—all remarkable traits of the elite, dangerously beautiful fey.
Yet still, he forced the coffers of noble warehouses to run dry. The money mysteriously turned up in brothels, shanties, and other towns. Some called him Robin Hood, the savior chronicled in legends. Others called him the scum of the Earth. Neighboring kingdoms would scratch their heads and mull over how Eadlynn was still standing—and with reserves of gold to rival their own.
What no one knew was that Darren Danz was the crown prince of Eadlynn, originally a peasant boy who’d scrounged for scraps in rowdy taverns, slowly making his way to royalty by serving the people with lively storytelling and promises of justice. They knew the story of the prince. The one who led the people in the Peasant Rebellion. The wonder boy who grew into a man when the weight of a throne pressed on his soul. The man who had been the only option as an heir for the childless king and queen.
What the people didn’t know was the heir was already helping people. Already giving back to the people who tilled the land and worked their backs till they were broken, both inside and outside. Darren Danz and Prince Darren Temerus were two sides of the same coin, both proud, cunning strategists, both with their own fair share of women and men alike after them.
Today, Darren Danz was the one exploring the city, grateful he didn’t have a retinue of guards tailing him.
“Stella Nena. What on Eadlynn are you doing here?” His voice, laced with midnight summers and honeyed shadows, hissed at her.
She looked around, confused and disoriented. “What am I doing here?”
“That’s my question. Why did you portal in here in the first place?”
“Portal?” She gasped loudly, ignoring the string of expletives Darren let out.
“Keep it down, love. I’m undercover and can’t risk any of my fans blowing my mission up.”
Stella Nena reined in the giddiness that was threatening to burst out of her. “I’ll help you. I promise I’ll stay out of your way. It’s just that I’ve had the crappiest day,” she sucked in a breath, “and I’m going to cry if you say no.”
A pained look settled on Darren’s expression.
She smiled. Reading Spies in the Empire too many times came with its benefits. Darren Danz had only two weaknesses: crying women, and chocolate eclairs.
“I suppose you can come along. Magic portals don’t pop up in your world often, I take it?”
“No,” Stella Nena struggled to not stammer. “Not usually.”
“Then let’s make the most of this adventure.” He threw her his trademark wicked grin.
A heated blush spread across her cheeks.
He leaped in front of her. Still befuddled, she scurried after him with haste.
They were flying, their steps singing, over the cobbled pathways of Eadlynn. Glowworms hung from eighteenth-century streetlights. The night was rich and ripe with the tantalizing scent of spiced honey and mulled wine.
“What’s our mission?” Stella Nena asked breathlessly when at last, their pitter-pattering steps halted in front of a rambunctious-looking tavern.
Darren turned to her slowly. “You’re my wife. We’re in Northern Eadlynn only for a few nights before our honeymoon.”
She hid her smile. “Your wife?”
He licked his lips. “Yes. Unless you have a problem with that.”
She shook her head briskly.
“Good. Because we’re going to be gambling tonight.”
They made their way inside the tavern. Darren pulled her to the nearest gambling table, a roomy area filled with rich-looking merchants with overflowing pouches—full of coin, no doubt.
Stella Nena sat down with her “husband” and noticed a beady-eyed man clothed head-to-toe in black. The disguise of an undercover guard.
But Darren didn’t know that.
She cursed unintentionally—to Darren’s obvious pleasure.
“Hey!” A gruff voice roared. “That’s Darren fucking Danz. Catch him, ya idiots!”
The guard leaped up.
Darren’s next movements were a blur: throwing a chair that had somehow found its way into his hands on the table, grabbing Stella Nena’s hands, and running—or at least, attempting to.
Her feet were rooted in place. Too late, she moved.
But by then, the guard had already whopped Darren upside his head. He was moving toward her too, now.
Stella Nena shook her head and blinked. Her head was spinning, the world was shaking, and oh gods. Oh gods.
They’d been caught.
Their cells were adjacent to each other, identical black bars separating their only chance of freedom.
The world suddenly tilted, and everything went black once more.
They had been trapped in the prison for several days now. She didn’t know. Time ran in a fast and slow blend here.
The only food they got was the meager chunks of hard bread and thin, watery gruel. All served on rock plates. Darren was steaming.
Stella Nena on the other hand—well, she was positively devious.
She’d read about Darren’s cocky prison escapes, how he’d leave the cell with an explosion that left only silver midnight smoke in its wake. How the guards would roar and chase after him to only pant a few minutes later, swearing that they’d get the traitor next time.
She cast a sideways glance his way. “Darren Danz, trickster prince and seditious spy, what plans do you have in store for us this time?”
He looked at her wearily. “I am not the fairytale prince that you read about. I am the sad peasant boy in the story.”
“Oh, we both know that’s not true. All the ladies vie for your attention. The men pretend they don’t. So many love you.”
“That’s not love, dear. Love is a cold, unfeeling creature construed by humans who look for shreds of hope in the darkest of times.
Perhaps some form of true love exists. But it is all driven by infatuation. Desire. Longing. In other words, nothing real.”
Tears pooled in Stella Nena’s eyes. “That’s not true. I wouldn’t spend my entire life searching for a love greater than anything else if that held a scrap of truth.”
His eyes bored through hers. “Perhaps it’s better to keep you in the dark, then.”
“Love exists.” she sputtered. “You just haven’t been lucky enough to find it.”
She looked down, only to be horrified at the paleness of her brown hand. The nondescript lines of her fingers, fading and blurring with the seconds. Darren had noticed too.
“Does it? Why would your portal close now, then? If the universe believes in love, wouldn’t it allow you to spend some more time with,” he formed quotes with his fingers, “your one true love?”
She had no answer. Aptly so, because she was fading into colors and too many collapsing emotions.
The air shimmered and sparkled, swallowing up the dreamer girl.
The cell next to Darren Danz’s contained no evidence of another person having been there, save for the barely eaten meal shoved close to the prison bars.
When the portal closed at midnight, Stella Nena woke up from the couch to find Spies in the Empire burning in the fire. She had fallen asleep and it had carelessly slipped out of her hands.
She scratched her head, remembering only that she had had the oddest dream. Thought nothing of it. And went to work the next day.
The magic in her soul withered and crumbled away into remnants of what once was.
The whimsical cream cottage grew untended, vines creeping on its walls and through its windows. The lake became poisoned, the forest bereft of life.
Stella Nena died many decades later, but it was on that day that she truly died.