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I've had my share of rough days. Got kidnapped and tortured by aliens only a few days before. I once tried to take on the Legion of Malevolence solo and was damn lucky to get out of that with just a broken arm, four broken ribs, and second-degree burns. Got swallowed by Zorgosaurus a couple years ago. Got poisoned by the Stingray after he'd flooded the city.

This felt worse.

It wasn't so bad when Emperor Charming set his magic castle down in the middle of Metro City, as part of a plot to kidnap the entire city to his own magical realm in another dimension. I mean, that's just the kind of thing that happens from time to time.

But it turns out that, because of the castle's magical defenses keeping anyone with superpowers out, I was the only superhero in town who could get away with attending the Emperor's Grand Ball tonight -- and I had no clue how to behave in that kind of social setting.

So Defender, Hybrid, and Miss Mega -- or Heather Van Ness, Darcy Sandoval, and Megan Malloy, respectively, in their civilian identities -- were dragging me all over the city getting me outfitted for the dance and trying to teach me proper social graces.

We were about to go into some place called Simone's -- a really high-end dress shop, I think -- and Heather stops us all just before we go in the door.

"I'm not going to go in here and tell them your name is Barf," she said. "Give me your real name."

"Yo, anyone who don't like calling me Barf can go fuck 'emselves," I said.

"Listen to me closely, dear," Heather said with a bared-teeth smile. "This is the most exclusive and expensive dress store in the city, and as long as I'm paying for your almost-certain-to-be-destroyed-before-the-end-of-the-night wardrobe, you are going to stand up straight, get rid of the candy cigarette, and tell me your real name. Megan, take her hat, too."

Meg took my hat. I tried to block her, but it's hard to have a decent defense for someone who's over eight feet tall when you think they're just 5'3".

"Aw, come on," I said.

"I'll give it back after the dance," she said.

"Your real name now," said Heather. "Your 'I'm the most irritating human on earth' routine has been wearing thin for hours, so just tell me your real name."

"Fine," I said. "It's Stef."

"Thank you very much," said Heather, turning to open the door of the shop.

"But it's not her real name," Megan said.

"It's close enough," I said.

Heather groaned and turned away from the door again. "So what's your real name?" said Heather.

"None of your beeswax," I said.

"It's Stefania," said Megan with a sigh.

"Stefania," said Heather, "is a... really, really nice name. You realize that, right?"

"It's a gorgeous name," said Darcy. "Oh my god, why would you ever prefer Barf over Stefania?"

"It ain't that nice," I said. So embarrassing.

"Oh, please," she replied. "My name's Darcy, for god's sake. Do you know how much I've always dreamed of having a beautiful name like Stefania?"

"Okay, okay, we've got to go inside now," said Heather. "Seriously, Stef, stand up straight and at least try to talk like a normal human."

She pushed the door open, a little bell rang, and she cried out, "Simone, darling, do you have a few minutes to make a really colossal sale?"

"Simone aren't heah, Miz Ness," said an elderly woman at the counter.

"It's Van Ness, Gail, and call me Heather anyway," said Heather. "Where has Simone run off to?"

"It's the damn dance at the castle," said Gail. "She been called out to every rich bitch nobody in town, so she runnin' all over wit' dresses in the trunk."

"Well, it's all for the best, dear," said Heather. "Everyone knows you're the person who really runs the shop."

"Ahh, you a two-faced little bitch," said Gail. "Whatchoo want, Miz Ness?"

"It's Van Ness, and really, Gail, call me Heather," said Heather. "I need a particularly nice dress for this young lady here."

"Not for you this time?" said Gail. "What rathole did you pull this one out of? They won't take no crank addicts at that dance."

"Gail, dear, trust me, she'll clean up just fine," Heather said. "Now what do you have that looks really chic?"

And 15 minutes later, I was wearing the closest thing I'd ever worn to serious fashion -- a tailored, sleeveless shift dress with an asymmetric black and white design. It was understated and classy, and I looked great in it, and I absolutely hated it.

"Wonderful, dear," said Heather. "With the right jewelry and hairstyle, you will turn every single head at the Grand Ball. Normally, I'd recommend another two hours of trying on dresses..."

"Oh please god fuck no," I groaned.

"But we're obviously pressed for time," she finished. "Let's get this boxed up and pick out some shoes."

"Actually, I'd like to veto this one," said Megan.

"I'm not sure you've got veto power when I've got the credit card," said Heather. "But let's hear your objection."

"It'd be a great dress if we were sending her clubbing," Megan said. "But we're sending her to a Grand Ball. In a giant fairy-tale castle. Hosted by royalty."

"Yeah, the guy wants to bring back serfdom, right?" said Darcy. "You gotta assume he's reactionary as hell."

"So you're thinking something a bit more... lace and taffeta?" said Heather.

"Oh god, kill me now."

"Hush, Stef," said Heather. "They make an excellent point."

"You're taking the advice of a woman who reads Captain Underpants books to third graders," I said. "And someone who makes her living wearing a tutu. You don't dare take them seriously."

"I think they both know a hell of a lot more about fashion than you do," said Heather. "Gail, what've you got that's a bit less high couture and a bit more Disney Princess?"

And a half-hour later, I was wearing a damn pink Cinderella dress -- full, floor-length skirt with petticoats, puffy sleeves, ermine highlights, jewel encrusted, with a cape and everything. And a goddamn silver tiara.

"Perfect," said Darcy. "From Barf Bolino to Princess Stefania."

Oh my god, I'm going to kill her.

"We'll take it," said Heather. "Box it up, please, Gail. Now let's see about getting you some proper heels."

"Flats," I said.

"Flats?" said Heather. "You'll take all the fun out of the shopping trip, dear."

"Flats," I said. If I had superpowers, I would be shooting her in the face with lasers right now.

"Let's go with flats," said Megan. "I don't want to have to teach her how to walk in heels, do you?"

We got flats.

While we drove to Heather's preferred hair salon to get my hair fixed up and my nails done, I made a few calls. Penitente managed to get a job in the castle for the evening, working in the kitchen, helping cook food, and doing low-level gruntwork. Might not have a lot of opportunities to leave the kitchen, but it was nice to know there'd be someone else on the inside.

I also called Gearbox and set him on research duty -- it was frustrating that we knew so little about Emperor Charming, and I wanted to see what else he could find out, plus I had a few ideas about giving myself a little edge inside the castle.

Star also called to let us know that the castle's lightning trap had been triggered a couple of times -- sounded like the city's supervillain population had decided to try to get inside the castle. Hopefully, the lightning would scare them off and keep them out of our hair.

Speaking of hair, the hair salon wasn't nearly as irritating as the dress shop. The manicure felt weird. My hair got washed and clipped and teased and turned into the aftermath of a shampoo commercial. But at least it wasn't irritating.

I didn't even have too much trouble rehearsing being polite and "normal." Megan told me I'd have to try to think the way I do when I'm wearing my mask, just a bit less severe. She told me to pretend I was doing the most epic acting performance ever. I'm not much of an actor, but it helped to think of it as a new disguise.

And after that, all four of us drove to Heather's mansion, and they spent a few hours teaching me which spoons to use and how to smile adorably and warning me not to burp or say "Yo" or talk with my mouth full. Heather told me to hold wine glasses but never actually drink anything. Darcy made me practice walking like a dancer. Megan had me memorize a few stock conversational phrases.

And I made more calls, too. Told Atlas that Penitente and I would be out-of-pocket completely, and made sure he knew not to try any crazy assaults on the castle unless they wanted to risk getting zapped by lightning. Heard back from Gearbox about some of his research.

Considered trying to hide some serious weaponry in the dress, but decided to stick with stuff that wouldn't get me thrown out if they searched us at the door. We managed to get a few things hidden that wouldn't set off any alarm bells but that I could convert into something useful if the need arose.

Finally, I got dressed up, Darcy put on my makeup, Heather gave me last-second pointers, and Megan took a ton of pictures. "Someday, you'll love these photos so much," she said. "Or I'll blackmail the hell out of you, one or the other."

And then I got into the back of one of Heather's family limos and got driven to the castle. The others didn't come along -- since there was a danger that Emperor Charming's goons would be looking for Heather, we'd decided not to risk letting him catch her or any of the rest of them.

And I was really wishing they were in the limo with me, because I was nervous as hell.

The limo driver kept giving me the stinkeye, too. He finally said, "Miss? What are you doing here? Why didn't Ms. Van Ness come along?"

"I'm afraid she didn't feel safe in that castle with all those monsters," I said. "But I've always dreamed of going to a Grand Ball like this, and she decided I should go in her stead."

He bought it, which I considered a huge success, since my first instinct was to tell him to fuck off and die.

We got to the castle, and every bit of nervousness I felt got converted into absolute terror.

There was a red carpet. And spotlights. And paparazzi. And people waving signs.

I can handle fighting vampires and giant centipedes and the entire Society of Lycaon, but I wasn't sure I could handle having that many people watching me while I walked in front of them not wearing a mask and dressed up like a fairy tale clown.

Then the driver came around and opened my door, and I really had no choice but to get out.

Everyone was looking at me. Half of them were already starting to snicker at me because I looked like a fugitive from a costume drama. I felt like I was back in high school again.

I smiled. Not a big smile. It was what Heather had called "Vapid but Pleasant Smile #629," designed to make me look vapid and pleasant. There weren't actually 629 of them, but we hoped the numbers would make them easier for me to remember.

I smiled, looked straight ahead, ignored everyone calling out "Who are you wearing?" and "Sing us a song, Sleeping Beauty!" and "Heya, Snow White, howzabout a kiss, babe?" and headed straight into the castle.

The first person I saw inside the castle was, well, not a person at all. It was a three-foot-tall white rabbit wearing a courtier's costume. He was sitting at a tall desk with an oversized feather pen. A six-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger, also dressed as a courtier, was standing next to him.

"Name, milady?" the rabbit asked.

"Stefania," I said. "Princess Stefania." I curtsied, even though curtsies always look stupid. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness."

"Oh, no no, dear girl," the rabbit chuckled as he wrote my name down. "I am but one of the emperor's humble servants. You shall meet him soon enough, I'm sure."

He handed a card to the tiger. "Please follow Vincente -- he will announce you in the Great Hall."

I walked behind the tiger down a hallway. We paused before a curtained doorway, and he looked down at me.

"Nicely done with the 'Your Highness' bit for the rabbit," he said. "You've got a decent shot, milady -- he seems to like your type. Wait here one moment."

He tapped his paw against the side of the doorway. The curtains were pulled open, and I saw a couple of short chimpanzees raise horns to their lips and blow a fanfare.

"Her Royal Highness Princess Stefania of Metro City!" the tiger announced in a booming voice. He stepped aside, and I took that as my cue to enter the Great Hall.

It was a huge oval-shaped room, with a couple of raised levels of small dining tables and a large dance floor in the center. The entire hall was draped in curtains and what I assumed were Emperor Charming's official flag (red and black with a picture of Charming's face in the center). The waiters were an assortment of tuxedoed anthropomorphic animals.

Off to my left were a bunch of skinny models giving me the evil eye. They were all dressed in mostly identical sleek clubbing dresses. Well, if I wanted to completely stand out from the crowd, mission accomplished. I did my best to keep the smirk off my face.

I would've liked to head straight for the kitchen to make sure Penitente knew how to identify me -- I wasn't worried about him knowing my secret identity, 'cause he'd just assume I was wearing a disguise (which, technically, I was) -- but there was no way for me to just sprint for the kitchen without arousing suspicions. So I had to mingle.

I decided not to start with the models who were dying to go ballistic on me as a rival for their shot at the Emperor. So I turned in the opposite direction and found myself face to face with radio hatemonger Kip Coulter -- and my brother Bruno, his agent!

"Nice dress, sweet-tits," leered Coulter. "Doing anything after the party?"

God, what a time to be unable to one-punch this asshole into dreamsville. And I can't even respond with the first insult to pop to mind because Bruno would recognize my usual profane style.

"Oh, regrettably, my lord, I must attend a most urgent dental extraction ceremony this evening," I said, trying to look as non-ironically pleasant as possible. "Thus I must decline your kind offer of companionship."

"Companionship, hey?" said Coulter. "Sounds hot. Wanna hang out? I'm rich, and I've got fantastic vocal cords."

Oh god, Bruno was looking right at me, his head tilted, trying to figure out if he knew me from somewhere. He had an expression like a dim collie, but he was right on the verge of pinning a name to me.

"Oh, look, my lord!" I said, dodging to one side to make sure they had an unobstructed view of the supermodels. "See who has arrived! A veritable herd of trollops of uncommonly easy virtue! I suspect they are charging less than usual tonight, I hope!"

"Less than usual, huh?" said Coulter. His attention was well and truly -- whatever. The important thing was he wasn't paying a damn bit of attention to me anymore. He slithered past me toward the models, my brother obediently tagging along behind.

"Craziest thing, Kip," Bruno said as he passed me. "That girl had such a weird resemblance to my sister..."

"Who cares about your sister, Bolino," Coulter said. "Helloooo, ladies..."

I moved away from the immediate vicinity to keep some more space between me, Coulter, Bruno, and the models and caught the eye of a man dressed as a European military officer from the 18th century. He had the most ridiculously extravagant mustache I'd ever seen.

"Good evening, sir," I said. "My name is Stefania. Forgive my manners, but this is the first Grand Ball I've ever attended. What will be happening here?"

He made a courtly bow. "Stefania -- I believe you were introduced as Princess Stefania, yes? It is my pleasure to meet you. I am Colonel Candycane of the Twinklezip Regiment. I am not a frequent attendee of the Emperor's festivities, but they tend to follow a simple format -- dinner, drink, dancing, fine conversation, and at the end of the evening, a royal marriage."

"The Emperor gets married very often then?" I asked.

"No, not very often," he said a bit nervously. "Only when it is necessary, I suppose. The brides tend to be quite happy with the arrangement. For as long as it lasts."

I was liking this less and less. I was definitely getting a Bluebeard vibe from the whole thing, which made it even more important that I figured out a way to stop the Emperor and save whoever he selected as his bride-to-be.

"Oh, Colonel," I said. "Forgive me for asking, but could you point me toward the ladies' powder room? I need to freshen my makeup."

"Certainly, your Highness," he said. "Down the corridor to your left. It's the first turn to the right, directly adjacent to the kitchens."

Perfect -- time to pay Penitente a visit.

"Thank you, Colonel," I said, dropping a quick curtsy. "May I dine with you at dinner?"

"I would be honored, your Highness," he said with a bow.

I headed down the corridor and located the kitchens. I barged in and tried to look shocked as all the kitchen help looked up at me. I saw Penitente -- not wearing his costume, of course, so I'd have to make sure I called him Alfred -- stirring a huge pot of soup.

"Oh no!" I said. "This is not the powder room! Have I made a wrong turn?"

"Yes, ma'am," said one of the kitchen workers nearest me. "It's just the other direction down the hallway."

"Thank you very much," I said. "I apologize for my error -- I assure you I am very penitent about it."

I went back into the corridor and waited out of sight by the door. After a moment, I heard Alfred say, "Hey, Victor, take over the soup for me? I gotta hit the head."

As he stepped out into the hallway, I grabbed him and pulled him down an unused hallway, but he grabbed my elbow and hustled me further down the corridor away from the Great Hall.

"Sorry, Cobra," he said. "We need to head this way, okay?"

"No problem," I said. "But I'll need to be back in the Great Hall before very long. Don't want 'em getting suspicious. Have you found out anything about the Emperor or the castle that I need to know?"

"Nah, they've barely let us out of the kitchen," Alfred said. "But I did find out one very interesting thing."

"Let's hear it," I said as Alfred opened up a side door. "I need something to give me some extra edge in this place."

"Good lord, Cobra," Jonni Rotten laughed. "It looks like you got mugged by a Barbie Dream House."

"Holy crap, Jonni," I said. "How the hell did you get in here?!"

"Swam across the moat and climbed in a window," she said with a shrug.

"But what about the magic lightning defenses?" I asked. "They were set to kill anyone who tried to get in more than once."

"Ya can't kill what's already dead," she grinned. "It set my skin on fire the second time, but moat water is real good for putting out fires."

"Three of us running around here can do some serious damage, Cobra," said Alfred.

"We could," I said. "But let's keep things quiet for now. We're wildly outnumbered, the head guy is a magelord, and the Great Hall is full of potential hostages."

"Come on, I snuck in here so I could do some fighting," said Jonni. "You can't ask me to keep hiding in this storeroom."

"Sorry, Jonni," I said. "But keep hiding. If things start getting crazy, Penitente, come get her, and both of you get to work evacuating everyone. 'Til then, stay loose and be prepared for anything."

"Those instructions suck, Cobra," said Jonni sullenly.

"We don't have time for more than that," Alfred said. "I think Cobra and me better get back out there before someone comes looking for us."

So Alfred headed back into the kitchen, and I made a quick detour to the restroom to try to cover up some of the stink that was wafting off of Jonni. Nothing smells worse than wet zombie.

And after that, it was back into the Great Hall, where I carefully avoided the angry supermodels and chatted aimlessly with Colonel Candycane and one of his subordinates, a squeaky-voiced gopher named Lieutenant Bucktooth.

They had been boring me silly for ten minutes with tales of their military exploits (but I got a lot of practice nodding and smiling mindlessly) when the courtiers blew another fanfare.

"His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Charming!" came the announcement, and the emperor strode into the Great Hall.

He was tall and conventionally handsome, with perfectly styled blond hair, blue eyes, and an easy smile. He was wearing a fairly stereotypical royal outfit -- crown, ermine robe, puffy pants and shirt, tights, jewelry, and all that other stuff.

And my heart skipped a beat. Skipped several beats. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

My stomach flip-flopped. Fireworks exploded. The world slowed to a slow-motion crawl.

I was in love.

We'd speculated that Emperor Charming was using some sort of love spell to make women fall in love with him, but I was still a bit shocked how fast it happened and how overwhelming it felt. It was a little terrifying -- I was extremely attracted to him, even though he was the exact opposite of the kind of guy I'm normally interested in. I felt a deep emotional connection to him, even though we'd never spoken to each other. I wanted to marry him and spend the rest of my life with him, even though I suspected he'd killed all his previous wives.

I could tell it shouldn't be happening, but that didn't change the fact that it felt 100% real. I was really, really in love with the guy.

And I felt damn lucky that we'd considered the possibility that he was using magical mind control to make women love him, because it meant that I knew what I was feeling was artificial, so I still had a chance of thinking through that synthetic love haze.

There was a receiving line, and Candycane and Bucktooth hustled me into it. I tried to control my anger when Charming greeted the equally lovestruck supermodels and struggled to keep my knees from knocking together as he got closer to me. At last, he was standing in front of me. "And you are?" he said.

"P-Princess Stefania," I whispered. I couldn't talk any louder than that.

"Princess, charmed to meet you," he said. "I am Emperor Charming."

He took my hand in his, raised it to his lips, and kissed my hand. Yes, through my glove, but I still almost fainted in delighted panic.

"Enchanté," I said. Just about the only word I knew in French. Why didn't I pick something I was fluent in, like Italian or Spanish or Japanese? God, I'm lucky I didn't say "escargot."

He started to move down the line, then paused and said, "Let's have some music! We can't have a Grand Ball without music!"

He took my hand again, and we moved on to the dance floor.

There was waltzing. There was quite a lot of waltzing. He'd dance with someone else sometimes, and I'd feel miserable. But he came back to dance with me over and over, and I'd feel divine.

I think several hours passed, but it felt like just a few minutes. The party was still going strong, everyone was dancing, everything was wonderful, and Charming waltzed me out of the Great Hall and into an adjoining sitting room. We sat on a settee in the corner of the room.

There was kissing. There was really a lot of kissing. It was freakin' excellent kissing. Nothing beyond that -- he was a perfect gentleman, or as close as you can get to that when you're also a world-conquering magelord. It was impeccably romantic, and I know I was in love and everything, but still... woof. What a guy.

"Stefania, we met only a few hours ago," he said, during a break in the kissing. "But I feel as though I've known you forever."

"Yah, no foolin'," I said. "I mean, I feel the same, dearest." God, I wanted to go back to the kissing so bad.

"I think it is time for us to move our relationship forward," he said. "And not merely to make our lives more perfect, but also to allow me to complete a very important spell that will allow me to bring your beautiful city completely into my own realm. Can you do that for me, my lovely Princess Stefania? Could you make that sacrifice for me?"

"I -- I think I could," I whispered. I think I was about to start crying.

"Princess Stefania, tell me true," he said, holding up a golden ring with an absolutely gigantic diamond. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes, I think I will," I said. I felt like my heart was going to hammer itself clear through my chest. "B-But I think I've already got enough rings."

He looked down at my hand in surprise. "Are those brass knuckles?"

"No, they're not," I said. "They're iron."

I punched him in the face. Not the best angle when we're both sitting on a settee, so it didn't even knock him down, just bloodied his nose.

"Cold iron, in fact," I said. "Always been believed to be a strong defense against magic."

He got off the couch, holding his nose with one hand while his other crackled with eldritch fire. "Y-You can't -- Princess, did you think I was a fairy?"

"Of course not," I said. "Iron was used against plenty of magical villains besides just the fae. But just in case iron didn't do anything, I made sure the other one was made of silver."

I had a much better angle that time and knocked him halfway across the sitting room.

"I'm not a werewolf either!" he honked at me. "I'm going to annihilate you!"

"I'm so sorry to be doing this to you," I said. "Really, really, I am. I know you know how I feel about you, and I know you know it's really genuine, but I can't let you do any of this. Would you like some cornmeal?"

I jumped on him, buried my knee in his stomach, threw a handful of cornmeal in his face. I did what I could to get it in his mouth and grind it into his wounds. Dirty pool, but when it's just me against a magelord, I give myself permission to be ruthless.

"Penitente said an old woman practicing Santeria in his neighborhood swore by cornmeal as just the thing to break up magical energy," I said. "Sorry about all of this. I just can't let you kidnap my city. So sorry, please don't be angry with me."

He launched a wave of bright blue energy at me that pushed me against the opposite wall.

"Dammit, that should've splattered you against that wall!" he shouted.

"Iron, silver, cornmeal," I said.

"I don't even need magic, damn you," he said, pulling a sword out of his scabbard. "I can destroy you the old fashioned way and still have time to get married to someone else."

"Oh, we share interests!" I said, grabbing one of a couple of crossed swords from over the mantle. I spun around, and our swords met with a clang.

"What," he said, "The. Hell."

"Dearest," I replied. "Let's dance."

Parry. Thrust. Riposte. Squeee.

The guards were in the room almost immediately, led by Candycane and Bucktooth, swords at the ready.

"No!" Charming shouted. "I can handle this strumpet myself!"

"Oh my god!" I said. "How could you say something so terrible?!" I didn't know whether to be angry or to cry. Or whether to laugh -- who says "strumpet" anymore?

"Are you sure, Your Highness?" asked Candycane.

"Thank you, Colonel," I said. "I believe I'll be fine."

"He was talking to me!" shouted Charming, swinging his sword at me again.

I parried him, of course, half expecting the guards to intervene despite his orders, but they were distracted by sounds of tumult within the Great Hall itself. From what I could see, while keeping one eye on Charming and his sword, there was a lot of fighting going on. Looked like the kitchen crew and Jonni had decided this was the right time to start herding people out of the castle -- can't say I disagreed with them -- and they were attacking the Emperor's guards and staff with anything they had on hand.

Jonni was busy swinging a couple of her signature tonfa sticks at a group of guards -- and definitely forcing them back. Alfred always seemed to specialize in improvised weaponry -- he was wielding a pair of frying pans. The rest of the kitchen were armed with kitchen knives, but were spending more time herding people out the doors than actually fighting.

I'd gotten too focused on what was going on in the Great Hall, and the Emperor reminded me where I needed to be paying attention when he swiped his sword at me. I jumped back in time to avoid anything but a rip in the dress, but I stumbled on the staircase behind me and went tumbling head over heels. It wasn't a particularly long staircase, and I'd long learned how to fall fairly safely -- but I still got banged up, the dress got ripped even more, and it threw me off my game.

In fact, Charming shot a magic bolt of energy at me, and I didn't manage to dodge it -- knocked me back ten feet onto the dance floor and singed the hell out of the dress, but at least I managed to hold onto the sword.

He shot another blast at me, but I dodged that one -- barely. Then I threw a little leather pouch at him -- it bounced off his head and actually staggered him back. The magical blast he was powering up faded away immediately.

"They call that a gris-gris bag," I said. "I don't guess I need to tell you what it does to magic, right?"

He charged at me, shouting angrily. Our swords clashed together again, and we went right back to parrying each other's attacks.

Thrust. Parry. Dodge. Parry. Soooo hot.

We slammed the swords together, and the blades locked together, leaving us nose to nose.

"Who are you, dammit?" he demanded. "You cannot be a true princess!"

"Oh yeah?" I said. "Listen, I've got something I'm tired of keeping bottled up inside. You wanna know what it is?"

"I don't care," said Charming. "But out with it. It'll be your last chance before I run you through."

I burped. Loud and juicy. Three seconds duration.

He broke the clinch and backed up, looking disgusted and horrified.

"Yo, sorry, babydoll," I said. "That's been workin' its way out all goddamn night."

"Y-You -- You -- You --"

"Oh, sorry, dearest," I said. "Old habits are hard to break. Love me for my eccentricities?"

He answered with a wild swing, and his sword hit mine with enough force to smack it out of my hand and send it flying well out of reach. Crud, swordfighting is a lot easier when I'm using a hard-light sword that can't be knocked out of my hand.

"Well, Princess," Charming snarled. "Looks like I'm going to carve you up like the crude little peasant you really are."

He took another swing at me, and I backflipped over a table to give myself some more room to maneuver.

"Have you ever considered maybe not killing the women you marry?" I asked. "I mean, not just because it's nicer, but you know, love is pretty cool, don't you think?"

"Even if we don't get married," he said, "I intend to make sure your head rots on a spike from the highest tower."

"Oooh, we might still get married?" I said. I should've probably tried harder not to sound happy about that.

"Certainly not," he said. "I'll find one of those models and marry them instead, then I'll drag your whole city back to my dimension and slaughter a tenth of the population, just to revenge myself on your memory. And you can't do a thing to stop me."

He charged me again, and I did another backflip over a table, this time upending it in his path in the process. He raised a hand and telekinetically tossed it aside, then charged at me again, sword raised high.

"Line of salt on the floor," I said.

He actually tripped over it. He stumbled, flailed, fell forward.

And then he fell backwards once my fist broke his fall.

When he finally stopped sliding, there were a dozen guards, including Candycane and Bucktooth waiting, all of them focused on me.

I quickly grabbed the sword Charming had dropped. "Come on, guys," I said. "I don't want to fight all of you, but I will. Save yourself the trouble."

"Don't be silly, Princess," said Candycane. "You beat him fair -- more fairly than some of your fellow 'super-heroes' have, over the past few decades. We'll return the castle to our home realm and trouble this world no more, at least until the Emperor decides he wants to try again in another 20 or so years."

"Wait, there are still a lot of people from Metro City inside the castle," I said. "Give us time to clear them out."

"Actually, with the Emperor's defeat, any magic holding the castle in place was nullified," said Bucktooth. "There's no way we can delay our departure, even if we wanted to."

"There should be no more than a minute left before we are gone," said Candycane. "But no one from your dimension will accompany us -- you are all anchored to your homeworld, and without the completion of the Emperor's spell, everyone from this world will remain in this world."

"The moat will be converted into a small lake when the castle disappears," said Bucktooth. "So there will be a short fall into a lake for anyone inside the castle. But I suppose it beats getting your whole city shanghaied to another world, yes?"

"Okay, fine," I said. I pointed at Charming. "But he stays here."

"What?" said Bucktooth. "B-But he's the Emperor."

"Spoils of war," I said. "Leave him here."

"Princess Stefania, you realize he'll never actually love you," said Candycane. "It's an artificial spell that will fade in the next few days. I'm not even sure he's capable of loving anyone but himself."

"Leave him here," I said. "He's committed crimes here, and I want him punished here. And don't tell me you want him forcing you into invasions like this. You'd be free of him."

Candycane and Bucktooth looked at each other and shrugged.

"Sure, why not?" said Bucktooth.

"Take hold of him, Princess, quickly," said Candycane. "Hold onto him as tightly as you can."

I dropped to the floor, grabbed him by his shoulders, and raised him up into my arms.

"Thank you, Colonel, Lieutenant," I said. "And good luck to all of you."

"Thank you, Princess," said Candycane. "It'll be nice to be on our own and --"

The castle disappeared. We fell, along with another two dozen people who hadn't made it out of the castle yet. We hit the water, we sank, we bobbed back to the surface, and swam for the bank of Ormes Park's new lake.

As I pulled Charming and myself out of the lake, there was a flash of light, and six figures stepped out onto the turf. With the castle gone, whatever shield had been in place keeping sorcerers out of the city had been dispelled, and the Council of Thaumaturges had made it through. Looks like they were expecting trouble -- they sent the Unknown, the Seventh Son, Nightrune, the Chosen One, the Immaculate, and the Shaman -- and I'd never seen six of them get dispatched to a single location.

"Hold, base villain!" shouted the Chosen One, a tall, glowing waif with connections to the ancient Fae Kings. "Leave thy fair hostage and prepare for retribution!"

"Fear not, damsel!" called Immaculate, a spell-slinger who styles himself as a Knight Templar. "Your rescue and salvation are at hand!"

Sorcerers are stone freaks. I'll grant you, I didn't look particularly heroic right now -- soaking wet, dress shredded, hair a mess, cuts and contusions, you name it -- but it should've been freakin' obvious to anyone who was dragging who out of the lake.

"Seven," I say with as much exaggerated weariness as I can muster, "Give me a Level 12 Sensory and Auditory Shield, radius 10 meters."

"One Mystic Wall of the Zenedron, coming up," said the Seventh Son, a folk magician who plays up his rustic roots to disguise the fact that he's one of the most powerful wizards on the planet. "Sorry we couldn't get here faster, ma'am."

A shimmering circle of electricity flared to life around us and rushed upwards to form a half-globe of energy blocking us from the view of anyone outside the sphere.

"I REGRET WE DID NOT ARRIVE IN TIME TO SEE YOUR DISGUISE IN ITS FULL SPLENDOR," said the Unknown, who really has trouble turning his volume down from the Booming Celestial Glory level. "WE WERE DETAINED BY THE EMPEROR'S MYSTIC DEFENSES."

"Wait, do you know this person?" asked the Shaman, the Navajo Nation's latest -- and still wet behind the ears -- mystic defender. "Or is this just politeness for the civilians?"

"You idiots," growled Nightrune, always the drill sergeant of the supernatural community, even under all that magical armor. "You're standing in Metro City before a woman who just beat a goddamn magelord into unconsciousness with her bare goddamn fists, and you think you're dealing with a civilian? You're idiots."

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, then the floodgates opened. Shaman's eyes popped wide open, and he squeaked out a panicked "oh shiiiiiiit." The Immaculate began rattling inside his armor. The Chosen One put her hands over her mouth and began to hyperventilate.

Hero worship is always embarrassing, but it's so much worse when it's heroes doing it.

Shaman finally rushed forward, grabbed my hand, and started shaking. "You're my hero," he whispered. "My hero."

The Chosen One ran up and shook my other hand. She conjured up a piece of paper and a pen. "I'm sorry, ma'am, for being insensitive," she gasped. "C-Could I please have your autograph? If you could make it out to Sara...?"

Immaculate pulled an iPhone out of thin air. "Could someone please take our picture together?"

"No," I said as emphatically as I can, jabbing a finger in his direction. "No pictures. Not without the mask."

He slumped over and looked, even through that oversized helmet, like a sad puppy dog. I felt sorry for him, but not enough to let him take my photo.

"They're all pretty new to the hero business, Cobra," said Seven diplomatically. "Lots of apprentice time in distant otherworldly citadels and all that. Perhaps we should arrange a meet-and-greet with you and the other Metro City heroes sometime soon? This is twice in just a few weeks that the city's been cut off from the outside world -- maybe we should set up some more magical defenses for you guys..."

"Okay," I said. "I'll let you organize that -- just send some e-mails when you've got a date picked out."

"Sounds good," said Seven. "I'll let you know when we get that on the calendar."

"Autograph?" whispered Chosen One quietly. "Please?"

I tried my best not to look too irritated when I signed autographs for all the newbies. I also signed one for Nightrune -- well, for his daughter, he said, though he'd never gotten one from me before, and I was pretty sure his daughter was only four months old. And I signed another for the Unknown -- I've signed at least a dozen for him over the past few years, and I've got to assume he's selling them on the heavenly version of eBay.

"What?" moaned a voice at our feet. "Where am I? Wh-Where is my castle?"

"Ahh, duty calls," said Seven. "One moment, please."

Six different mystic containment spells lashed out at Emperor Charming, surrounding him with eldritch coils of energy and lifting him into the air. He writhed and screamed and howled, but he was stuck tight, cut off from all his power in the castle and overwhelmed by the power of the Council of Thaumaturges, filtered through their six representatives.

"EMPEROR CHARMING!" bellowed the Unknown. "YOUR CRIMES AGAINST THE LAWS OF MAGIC AND AGAINST THIS DIMENSION ARE WELL ESTABLISHED. YOUR GUILT IS WITHOUT QUESTION. YOU ARE ABANDONED BY YOUR SUBJECTS. YOU WILL BE IMPRISONED IN AN UNBREAKABLE CIRCLE OF TORMENT HERE ON EARTH, LOCKED INTO THE JADE MEDALLION OF X'KORGOG THE CRUEL. WILL YOU SUBMIT FREELY TO PUNISHMENT?"

"Never!" shouted Charming. "I'll escape! I'll destroy you all! You'll never be rid of me!"

"THEN LET THIS BE THY END ON THIS PLANET," rumbled Unknown. "AWAY WITH YE NOW, AWAY TO --"

"Hey, sorry," I interrupted. "I got something to say."

"UM, OKAY."

"You!" shouted Charming, floating helplessly in his cage of magical energy. "You struck me! You ruined the dance! You thwarted my reign! You exiled me from my castle! I'll make you suffer, you witch, you --"

"Shut up," I said. "You were a terrible ruler, or your subjects wouldn't have been so eager to throw you out. You're probably a multiple murderer. You're just like every other two-bit would-be conqueror, convinced of your own superiority, willing to doom millions for the sake of your own shallow ego. Wherever you're going, you deserve worse. And you know what else?"

I grabbed him by his collar and smacked the hell out of him.

And by "smack," I mean "kiss."

It was a hell of a kiss. It went on for a while. And by "a while," I mean it went on for a long, long time.

Nightrune cleared his throat. Three times.

I stepped back. Charming looked like he'd been hit in the face with a 2x4... but in a good way.

"This spell of yours is going to wear off in a few days," I said. "And once I'm back to normal, if you ever fuck with my emotions again, I'm going to make you wish you'd stayed in that medallion where it was safe."

I looked over at the Unknown. "Send him outta here already."

"YES, MA'AM." There was a flash of light, in reverse, and Emperor Charming disappeared.

"And the rest of you guys had better quit gawking at me like that," I said. "Crazy horny sorcerers, it's like you've never seen people kiss."

"Not like that," said the Chosen One. "My mom won't even let me watch cable after 9."

"Shut up," I replied. "Seven, teleport me to the top of the Infantino Building, would ya? I don't wanna deal with the press on the other side of this sensory bubble, a'ight?"

"You got it, Cobra," said the Seventh Son, waving his hands as he cast a portal spell. "Nice working with you again."

And just like that, I found myself on top of one of the tallest buildings in the city, far away from the chaos of Metro City's newest lake and looking up at the night sky overhead.

Thirty minutes later, I was still up there. I'd changed into my costume, but I didn't feel any great need to go fly around the city tonight. I couldn't hear any emergency sirens from here, I couldn't see any crimes in progress. I could see the lights of the city and the faint stars in the sky, and I could hear the rush of traffic far below. Seemed like all I needed tonight.

There was a thump on the roof behind me, and I turned my head to see Miss Mega straightening up at the far edge of the Infantino Building's roof.

"Hey, Barf," she said. "Everything okay?"

"I'm in costume, Miss Mega," I said.

"Okay then," she said. "Is everything okay, Chrome Cobra? Half the city's buzzing about the mysterious princess who beat up Emperor Charming, the other half's buzzing about the giant lake that's taken over Ormes Park, and the only person not buzzing is you."

"Meaning you not buzzing overhead, beating up bad guys," she clarified. The girl just cannot make a worthwhile punchline to save her life.

"I'm burned out on all the excitement," I said. "What happened after I left?"

"The Seventh Son made a statement for the press," Miss Mega said. "Said the Emperor had been captured and imprisoned by the Council. Identified you only as 'one of the Council's allies,' which I assume you're okay with."

"Sure," I said. "Last thing I need is for my mom to recognize my name and figure out her daughter dresses up as Princess Stefania to beat up potential husbands."

"Won't have to worry about that anyway," she said. "Everyone at the Ball seemed to think you were introduced as Princess Tiffany. Your brother made the TV news, by the way -- Kip Coulter claimed he pulled him out of the lake and saved him from drowning."

"Like hell," I said. "Bruno's a champion swimmer. He probably fished Coulter out of the drink and let that pompous windbag pretend to be the hero. I can't wait 'til he finally lets someone else at the agency handle that bastard's account."

"Two minor injuries when the castle disappeared," Miss Mega continued. "But no fatalities. Did you know Jonni was able to get into the castle? She pulled six people out of the water, so of course, they all threw rocks at her. I worry about that girl sometimes."

"She'll survive," I said. "Or at least, she won't die."

"You're in a weird mood tonight," she said. "Should I take this to mean you got hit by the Emperor's love whammy?"

"I don't want to talk about that."

"You wouldn't, would you?" she said. "I keep forgetting who you are. You're a college girl who shuns all social activity. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since you basically run this city. But there are worse things out there than loving the wrong guy, Barf."

"I said I don't want --"

"I heard you, and I'm ignoring you," Megs said. "The good news for you is that the love spell wears off in a few days, so you know you'll be back to normal before the weekend. The other good news is that you're going to get so much practice in on your blues harmonica. The bad news is that you get to spend a few days feeling like every other awkward, lovestruck college kid out there. Completely miserable part of the time, completely exultant part of the time. There are so much worse places to be than that, Barf."

"Are you done yet?"

"Actually, I am," she said. "Lesson delivered, youngster. Pop quiz on Friday!"

"Whatever," I said. "With your nonexistent social life, it's like getting calculus lessons from the football coach."

"My math teacher in high school was the football coach," said Miss Mega. "And he was a damn good math teacher, too. Just do what you need to do to get through the next few days, Barf. The Furious Five are in town trying to take advantage of the chaos, and I'd hate for you to miss a chance to beat up on them."

She took a running jump off the roof, and I watched her land on Hudlin Tower a few blocks away and then bound down to the Dyer Building another few blocks to the north.

So I was supposed to just bury myself in work to get over this? Yeah, right. I mean, it had been a completely rotten day. A completely rotten set of days. Alien invasion, mind control, torture, giant castle popping up out of nowhere, having to dress up like a girly-girl, meeting a guy who messed with my head and made me fall in love with him. And I hadn't been able to paint anything yet. What a -- What a completely rotten set of days.

Seriously, let the city look after itself for a few days. All I wanted to do is relax. Relax and look at stars.

Just... relax.

Just...

To hell with that. So damned bored.

I cranked the audio enhancers to maximum, narrowed the band to street altitude and emergency radios, filtered out normal conversation levels.

Picked up a hint of spiraling flute music and maniacal giggles. La Flautista and the Hyena. And where they went, the rest of the Furious Five followed.

Cross-referenced with street and business maps. Most likely location at this time of night? Wolverton Fine Jewelry on 88th and Drake -- nice selection and not the best security system in the world. But the Metro Museum of Arts was just a block away, and they were hosting a traveling exhibit on the artwork of the opera Pagliacci -- and that was just the kind of thing the Five's leader, Bananas the Clown, always seemed to go for.

I considered phoning in the location to see if anyone else wanted to help out. But I decided to skip it. The Furious Five were plenty of fun to take apart solo.

So I dove off the roof, dropped a little over a hundred feet to get the adrenaline pumping, and powered up the jet boots.

I was done with people trying to teach me lessons. Time for recess.

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