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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.
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
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.
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, we've got to go inside now," said Heather. "Seriously, Stef,
stand up straight and at least try to talk like a normal human."
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
"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?"
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
"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."
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."
dear, trust me, she'll clean up just fine,"
Heather said. "Now what do you have that looks really chic?"
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"Name, milady?" the rabbit asked.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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
"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..."
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.
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?"
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
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.
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."
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?"
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."
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.
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
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
He looked down at my hand in surprise. "Are those brass knuckles?"
"No, they're not," I said. "They're iron."
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."
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!"
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
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.
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.
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!"
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
"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.
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.
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.
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
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?"
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
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."
took another swing at me, and I backflipped over a table to give myself some
more room to maneuver.
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
"Oooh, we might still get married?" I said. I should've probably tried
harder not to sound happy about that.
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.
he finally stopped sliding, there were a dozen guards, including
Candycane and Bucktooth waiting, all of them focused on me.
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
"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."
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,
"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."
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."
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 --"
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
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 Skinwalker -- and I'd never seen six of them get dispatched to a
"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!"
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,
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
"Wait, do you know this person?" asked the Skinwalker,
the Navajo Nation's latest -- and still wet behind the ears -- mystic
defender. "Or is this just politeness for the civilians?"
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."
was a long, uncomfortable pause, then the floodgates opened.
Skinwalker'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.
Skinwalker finally rushed forward, grabbed my hand, and started shaking. "You're my hero," he whispered. "My hero."
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
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."
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
"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?"
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."
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.
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."
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 --"
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
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.
stepped back. Charming looked like he'd been hit in the face with a
2x4... but in a good way.
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.
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."
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."
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
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
"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?"
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."
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
"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
"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."
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 --"
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
Seriously, let the city look after itself for a few days. All I wanted to do is relax. Relax and look at stars.
To hell with that. So damned bored.
cranked the audio enhancers to maximum, narrowed the band to street
altitude and emergency radios, filtered out normal conversation levels.
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
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.
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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