Once there was a kingdom of darkness, and another that was always light. Nobody knows who ruled the land of darkness, but a giant ogre king who only ate fallen stars ruled the realm of light. Like many weighed down by jewels and crowns, the king required others to catch his stars, but the only star-catcher that remained was a girl named Aurelia. All day long, Aurelia was forced to track white scars across the sky. She hiked up mountains and waded through roaring rivers in search of the king’s food, because keeping the king stuffed kept their realm safe and bright. On days when Aurelia returned with little more than a bucketful of stars, the king turned her around and sent her off with a grave warning. Without his belly to light the day and night, evil beasts would ravage their world. Aurelia had never seen an evil beast, but she was still afraid.
Every day Aurelia did as she was told. When she came upon a star, she wrapped it in a cloth sewn with special threads of ice so her hands were never burned. Afterward, she returned to the castle. Climbing ninety-nine stairs that stretched out like a giant cascading tongue from the jaws of the throne room. Once she reached the top, Aurelia hurled the stars into the king’s gaping mouth, and he greedily gulp them down until his plump belly grew bright. So bright, in fact, their kingdom could be seen from far, far away.
The shiniest stars fell near the edge of the land where the light and the dark split in two. The Great Divide, the king called it, and although Aurelia often watched it from afar, he forbade her to go near.
The king picked at his razor-sharp teeth and licked his lips clean. He leaned over his enormous stomach to pin her with his glare. “Monsters lurk on the edge of the Great Divide. They sniff you out, you see.” He flared his big nostrils. “And then they eat you up.”
Aurelia recoiled. She imagined claws for fingers and sockets with no eyes.
One day, the king roared from hunger. “Find me more stars! Do not return until you collect a feast that lasts for seven days.”
The light around her flickered and silhouette monsters danced along the walls. Aurelia shivered at the thought of no light. She imagined all of the people being eaten. She had scoured the mountain for days and found not a single spark. “The Great Divide is the only place left,” she said. “The stars tumble down the mountain until they come to rest at the bottom.”
“Find stars elsewhere!” The king boomed so loud, the castle wall cracked. “You will freeze to death near the darkness. Creatures with sharp teeth and black eyes will pull you apart to suck on your bones.”
The king rubbed his belly, and Aurelia wondered if the monsters rubbed their bellies the same way.
“Go,” he told her. “Do not eat, and do not sleep until you have done as I command.”
Aurelia set out all alone. The light from her kingdom blinked on and off, casting shadows that made her jump. No matter where she looked, she could find no stars. She gently touched her blistered feet and pressed at her stomach to make the hunger pangs go away. She asked the baker for a Bouillon biscuit and the farmer with the glowing cow for a sip of Sunshine milk, but both turned her away, reminding her of the king’s order and her duty to them all.
She didn’t ask to be a star-catcher. She wanted to swim in the copper lake with others her age. String up ceremonial Gilver nuggets for the Festival of Illumination. But still, she saw expectation in the eyes of others. Their fright, should she fail. With a heavy heart, Aurelia ignored the king’s prophecy and headed toward the Divide. She’d never had the luxury of a choice. Now, if she wanted her kingdom to survive, she had no choice but to go.
She followed trails of stardust until she came upon thousands of tiny specks littering the ground. Wonder flickered around her feet. Constellations sparkled over the ground. She bent down to collect a handful of stars when a figure emerged from the black bushes. “Who’s th-there?” she stammered.
A creature stepped forward, disguised by shadows.
Aurelia stumbled backward. “Come into the light.”
“Your light will burn me.”
“My stars do not burn,” Aurelia said.
“Come into the darkness,” the creature said.
“You are a monster and will eat me.”
The creature laughed. At least Aurelia thought so, because she couldn’t see him. “I eat Midnight berries and roots,” he said. “Not girls with stars in their hands.”
“How can you live in such a cold, lonely land?” Aurelia asked.
“The birds sing to me. The animals keep me warm. How can you live in such a hot, fiery land?”
“In the light I am never afraid,” she said, questioning the truth in her words.
The creature grew quiet, so Aurelia quickly stacked the stars on her cloth and dragged them up the mountain.
The king crushed the stars in the palm of his hand. “You feed crumbs to a king?! Return for more.”
Secretly, she wanted to go back. She liked the pleasant scent of the grey forest and the songs she heard when she tilted her ear. Do the birds that sing to him make the music? How do the animals keep him warm?
Aurelia met the monster at the Great Divide the next evening, and he was no more than a shape among shapes, dressed by the night.
“Where do you sleep?” she asked.
“In my home. We rest by the fire and tell stories from our day.”
“My family,” he said.
Aurelia had never heard of a family. All the people in her kingdom were just subjects of the king. She pondered this as she left him, eager to return and ask more questions.
On the third night, they stepped closer to one another. He told her more about his family. Jokes they played on one another. Stories of horror they told as they huddled around. About the creatures of light, and how one touch burns hotter than the bluest flame.
Aurelia had never laughed so hard. So hard, that her heart hurt when she left, because she didn’t want to go.
Little by little, they inched forward. On the fifth night, she looked up and saw his face. His eyes were not black and his teeth were not sharp. His eyes were green, he told her. She’d never seen the color green and didn’t know what that meant, but saw that they matched the leaves on the trees. His lips were the color of the berries he held in his hand.
Aurelia gasped. Her face lit up the same way it did when she found a star. “You look like a boy.”
“I am.” He thought her light would hurt, but his eyes and his skin became accustomed to the intensity. “My name is Kieron.”
Kieron wasn’t burned, as he’d been told, and Aurelia wasn’t devoured, like she’d been told.
“Will you come here?” Kieron asked.
Aurelia’s cheeks warmed at the softness of his words. “Will you come here instead?”
As Kieron stepped forward, so did she. When his gentle hand touched hers, his night brightened and her day darkened. The world around them pulsed with colors neither had ever seen nor imagined could exist.
When Aurelia never returned, the king grew so thin that his crown no longer fit. After days of hunger, he jumped into the sky and became the sun, ever chasing after the stars.
From that day on, Aurelia was never without Kieron. They stayed together as the light began to blend, and his family became hers until they created their own. Together, with her hand always in his, they traveled to uncharted lands and lived long, happy lives. On their last day, they closed their eyes, and the night sky honored their love by lifting them up to shine forever more.