The mage is always third. First comes the hero, who got through the whole thing by virtue of either the worst or best luck on Terca Lumireis, able to say he saved the entire world with a smirk. Second comes the love interest, the princess, the healer. The prisoner. The sacrifice. Everyone loves the princess, but they hate her, too, sometimes, at night when they can't see her blissfully open smile. (Of course, Rita wouldn't know anything about that.)

In the histories, they will list those two first. After them will be the mage, someone who did just as much, if not more, who figured out the formulas, rediscovered something that hadn't been seen in more than a thousand years, and invented a way to use it before the world got eaten by the Adephagos. Everyone recognizes the mage is important; they just don't understand why, exactly. The average person knows nothing of the Rizomata Formula and mana and apatheia-to-spirit conversion. They don't understand those things.

They understand heroes, something greater than they are, something that needs no explanation. They understand princesses, beautiful legends, symbols of the people – gifted with powers far beyond the ordinary. One can adore a princess or a hero.

One cannot adore a prickly mage, someone, who, if thanked for saving the world, would be just as likely to burn you as acknowledge you. One cannot adore the lifesaver because one just doesn't understand the value of the true achievement, the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears of those endless nights of desperation, searching for a way to save the first friend ever had. (Rita knows nothing about that, too, of course.)

So the mage comes in third. Important, but not important. The one who sits in the corner at the victory ball with a glass of nonalcoholic punch, because she still isn't old enough to drink, dammit, saving the world or no, pretending to read a book while the hero and the princess waltz on the dance floor, blissfully content.

They deserve it. They deserve each other.

And, dammit, Rita will be happy for them, no matter how much it hurts.

All of Brave Vesperia is here, Repede excluded – he was, before the crowd of adoring girls got to be too much for him and he fled to the kitchens and the choice scraps there. Karol inherited the majority of the fangirls, stuttering and blushing, until Nan came up to him and demanded a dance loudly – one he looked happy about even as he was dragged onto the dance floor by the collar and Clint and Tison glared from the corner. Raven, seemingly perfectly unconcerned with the fact that he was in the thick of people who had known him as the late Schwann, was flirting with a few blushing noblewomen by the refreshment table, combining two of his deepest loves. Typical. Judith, surrounded by a crowd of gaping admirers in a dress that left less to the imagination than a swimsuit on any other girl, was amusing herself with saying things like "The Empire is really very nice, isn't it? If only there was better company there" in such a pleasant tone none of them even noticed.

There were other acquaintances, too, people here from their travels – Kaufman from Fortune's Market, who could pull off a dress and drink any ten nobles or guild members under the table, as she was doing currently, the mages of Aspio, now Halure, whom she had only driven off with the threat of a Crimson Flare earlier, and Leblanc, who was loudly regarding anyone who wanted to listen or couldn't get away with tales of the great (late) Captain Schwann, with Adecor and Boccos contributing. Flynn, in full Commandant's regalia, was talking to a richly-robed Council member, Sodia, actually in a dress, for once, twirling stiffly in the arms of another off-duty guard and trying to look like she wasn't watching the Commandant, and Apple-head, deep in the crowd of mages, extolling his exploits as one of the members of the Brigade that had helped to stop the Adephagos and save the world, being the personal mage of the Commandant. The Flynn Brigade was standing guard at the entrances and exits, of course, and the new Emperor, Ioder –

Rita frowned. Wait. Where was Ioder? Surely the Emperor himself couldn't just leave his own party. Not if she got turned away by the guards, saying there was a "special announcement" later that she absolutely had to be here for. So where did –

"Miss Mordio?" Rita turned at the sound of the voice, a retort and fireball spell ready to be unleashed, just in case, only to come across the slight but decorated form of the very person she had been looking for – he'd gotten a little taller, his hair had been cut, and had his eyes been so very blue the last time they met? Well, it was understandable if she hadn't payed much attention to him, being in mortal danger and saving the world and all. "Would you care to dance with me?"

His voice was too soft, too noble, too – enticing, a little voice whispered inside of her, too good to be real, for someone like you, the mage, he noticed you alone in the corner and is just being polite noble for her to feel comfortable, and so she responded bluntly, the way she did to all things outside of her comfort zone. "If I wanted to dance, I would be over there acting like an idiot with the other girls," Rita snapped. "You know, the noble ones, whose mothers are in a group plotting your marriage to their daughter? Why don't you go dance with one of them, Your High and Mighty Emperorness?"

"Because I want to dance with you," Ioder said placidly, taking a seat – uninvited – beside her on the broad windowsill, near enough to touch. Smack, Rita corrected herself firmly. Though somehow she didn't think it would go over very well to hit the Emperor in his castle, surrounded by guards and people loyal to the throne. "I have spent upwards of three hours dancing with and listening to the elegant, polite chatter of the finest flowers of the nobility. They can survive for five minutes without my attention. Please call me Ioder, Miss Mordio." Where did this guy get off, anyway? His Imperial Majesty wanted her to refer to him by his first name, but he couldn't put together the letters R-I-T-A into a word with two distinct syllables?

"Sure thing, Your High and Mighty Emperorness," she retorted angrily. "Is Ioder your real first name, anyway? After all, if Estellise is any example, the imperial family likes long names. Are you sure it's not something like Ioderystan or Ioderawem or Ioderlise?"

"I assure you, my name is merely Ioder, Miss Mordio," he replied, eyes glinting in – was that amusement? How dare he be amused at her, Rita Mordio, one of the people who had made this stupid celebration possible, which she was regretting heavily – something … liquid as he turned to face her. "I believe I told you to call me by my first name. Would you like me to make it a royal decree that you do so and have it read out to the ballroom?"

Against her will, Rita flushed. Gods, that would be humiliating. Yuri, Judith, the brat, and the old man would never stop teasing her, and Estelle would be so disappointed. Not to mention the rest of the room gawking. Meteor Storm would be unsafe in such a close area, and Tidal Wave would ruin the pretty decorations. Actually, screw that. If it came down to it, Tidal Wave would do a perfect job of getting everyone to take her seriously without having to kill a few morons, first. "You wouldn't."

Ioder cleared his throat mock-seriously. "'Hear ye, hear ye, in the eleventh day of Asule, in the first year of the reign of Emperor Heurassin, His Imperial Majesty would like to declare that the heroes of the world, consisting of the Princess Estellise Sidos Heurassin, the guild Brave Vesperia, Commandant Flynn Schifo, and, most notably, a certain stubborn mage named Rita Mordio, are hereby ordered to address the Emperor specifically and exclusively by 'Ioder.' Those who refuse will be punished by having to be Emperor for a day and see how much they like to be called that. Furthermore, Miss Mo – "

"Okay, okay," Rita hissed, glancing furtively about the ballroom to make sure no one had wandered close enough to their little corner – hey, wait, since when was it their little corner? She had obviously staked it out as hers – to hear the Emperor acting like a buffoon. "You win. I'll call you Ioder. But I'm not dancing with you." No matter how charming his blue eyes were. Lots of people had blue eyes. Lots of people who weren't blond-haired and attractive and charming and – and – giant freaking jerks!

His damned blue eyes twinkled. "Do I need to issue a decree to get you to do that, too?"

Rita growled audibly. "Fine. And if I step on your feet multiple times, it's because I'm just clumsy, not because I hate you and there are imperial guards that would jump on me if I tried anything more obvious." Ioder chuckled and outstretched his hand. Rita pointedly ignored it, standing up on her own and setting her book aside. Just because she had to do this didn't mean she had to like it, dammit. She had no intention whatsoever of buying into his game, whatever it was.

Ioder grinned. "Noted. And, of course, when Estellise saw you dancing on the streets of Mantaic that was merely a trick of the light or you were practicing spell patterns, correct?"

Rita blushed. Damn him. Damn him, damn him, damn him. She hated blushing. It was so – so – utterly girly. Weak. Why the hell had Estelle been talking about her dancing to Ioder, anyway? Was he some kind of sicko or something? "Let's just get this over with, Ioder, before that stupid special announcement or whatever happens and I can get out of here. Unless, of course, you've changed your mind." Please say n – argh, yes! She meant yes! Say yes, you've changed your mind, you stupid idiot! You mistook me for a noble girl, someone actually likable and appropriate for the Emperor to dance with, and you'll leave me to my book and my corner for the rest of the party.

"No." Rita flushed, again, at his flat dismissal, and glared to cover it up. Pointedly ignoring his offered hand (again) she led the way to the dance floor, where she was forced to actually have skin-on-skin contact that didn't involve her fist connecting with his face. His hands actually had a few calluses, she noted, though the rest was lily-soft, like a predictably noble, and quite warm. Well, he had been the favored candidate of the Imperial Knights – like Estelle, he could probably use a sword. Suddenly her hands felt all clammy. Was she sweating? Surely not. It was one dance, one little bit of contact for society's sake, nothing to get upset about –

The dance was an easy one, though painfully slow, a waltz, and Ioder, unsurprisingly, was an excellent leader. He had probably had dance lessons since childhood, being a prince. Anyway, it meant she had to do nothing but keep from killing him and try (despite her threats to the contrary) not to step on his feet, which was easy enough. They danced in an uncomfortable silence, and Rita was irritably aware of the way the stupid nobles had started to point and whisper at them.

"Did you do all of this just to start a weird rumor about us being together?" Rita muttered sharply on one of the turns, making sure that everyone in the half-circle of the ballroom she faced got a good dose of her glare, including Karol and Raven, who were watching and guffawing like the idiots they were. "I bet you did it just to get some of the noble girls off of your back because you're too nice to tell them no. Now I'm going to spend the next month hearing everyone tease me about this."

"I have no doubt that the members of the Council and the Captains of the Knights will lecture me severely," Ioder replied, still smiling serenely in that infuriating way of his. Who, besides Estelle, had the right to be so damned happy? Wasn't he currently complaining about being the Emperor? "I am willing to accept the repercussions for the pleasure of being in your company. I apologize for any discomfort or inconvenience I may have caused, Miss Mordio."

Okay. She was going to have to say it, wasn't she? This was going to be humiliating. "Look … Ioder," Rita forced out, gritting her teeth, "you don't have to call me 'Miss Mordio'. You're Estelle's cousin. You can call me Rita, okay?"

"Really?" he asked, and then winced, blushing. Wow. He actually looked kind of cute flustered. I did not just think that. "Um, I mean, thank you, Miss Mor – Rita. I am eternally grateful for being allowed the pleasure of the use of your given name."

Who talked like that, anyway? No one but the people inside Estelle's stupid stories. Well, she certainly wasn't one of those flowery, swooning heroines, thank aer. Rita rolled her eyes. "Whatever. It's not like it's a gift or anything." The music wound down, and they came to a gentle, gradual stop, ending up back where they had begun, near her beautiful, deserted dark corner. No one had dared to invade it in her absence, luckily. "Um, you can let go of me now. The dance is over."

Ioder flushed again. "Right. My apologies." He released her hand and his grip around her waist – Rita tried very, very hard not to ponder the sudden feeling of absence too deeply – and stepped back, bowing. "Thank you for gifting me with this dance, Rita." Apparently all royalty liked excessive formality and bowing. Who knew?

"It was nothing. See you later, Ioder." Not giving him time to respond, Rita plunged through the crowd – all staring, she noticed – and resumed her position, picked up her book, and furiously began to read, ignoring the fact that the words were incomprehensible for some reason and the heat of her cheeks. It meant nothing, she reminded herself firmly.

The mage didn't wind up with the Emperor. That just wasn't how the story went.

"Hey, Rita. It's time for the special announcement. They want us all in the front. Come on." Rita was interrupted from the ancient pre-blastia techniques in the book she had stolen from the castle library – which was finally getting interesting, dammit – by Karol, who she hit upside the head for disturbing her.

"What the hell?" she demanded, as he rubbed his head and grimaced, whining like usual (sissy). "Why would they need us for their stupid special announcement?"

"Well, the ball is being held in our honor, Rita," Karol managed, stepping back and managing to avoid her second slap. "I bet they're going to reward us or something, for defeating the Adephagos. OW!" There. Got him. Rita sat back smugly and Karol groaned. "Gah, I can't believe I picked two. Why did Yuri have to choose such a high number? Why did we even let Yuri choose the number, anyway?"

"What are you babbling on about, brat?" Rita demanded, forgoing politeness, as usual. It was overrated, and it wasn't like it seemed to be doing anyone else any good. "Wait … you guys picked numbers over who was going to have to come tell me?"

Karol rubbed his head nervously. "Um … yeah? Maybe?"

"Why you-!" Rita leapt up, glaring – how dare they, why not just leave her there, if no one wanted to come talk to her – and braced her hand for a smack as Karol quivered, shrinking back.

"It was Raven's idea!" Karol said quickly, looking for someone to blame, no doubt, to get him out of a well-deserved beating. "And Yuri was the one who actually said we should go along with it!"

"…Fine," she relented begrudgingly, dropping her hand. "I'll kill you ALL after this stupid special announcement. Lead the way, brat."

Rita could have sworn she heard him mutter "Would it kill you to say my name for once?" under his breath. But that was impossible. Karol was stupid, but he wasn't suicidal, was he?

Maybe she'd hit him on the head a bit too hard this time.

She hit him for that, anyway, because, unless he was saying "Mold wit fill yew two say mi game her wons?" there wasn't much else he could have been mumbling, and if he had been saying that, he needed to be hit for speaking gibberish no sane person could understand properly.

"Aw, Rita," Karol groaned, and she was about to hit him again for good measure (it was surprisingly therapeutic) but they were already at the front of the room, and Estelle was beckoning.

"Rita!" she whispered, face shining like a beacon. "I saw you dancing with Ioder! You two looked so good together! Do you like him?"

"Why the hell would I – " Rita started to say, but was cut off. Leblanc stood in front of them.

He cleared his throat and declared. "Silence, all of you! Let the Emperor speak!" His booming voice rang through the room, halting all of the conversations as everyone turned to the source. Namely, Leblanc, and beside him, Emperor Ioder. Also, behind him, Rita and everyone else. She blushed and then glared fiercely. She hated staring people. Would they still be able to stare if she incinerated them? Huh?

"Ladies and gentlemen, guests and citizens, we are here today to honor those who defeated the foul Adephagos and saved our world from destruction," Ioder began, voice entirely unlike his usual quiet calmness. It was actually almost … impressive, and everyone else in the room – except maybe Yuri, and her, of course – definitely thought so. "Firstly, our own Commandant Flynn Schifo, who I grant in reward a seat on the Council for him and his heirs, 24000 gald, and Imperial permission to court a member of his guard." Flynn blushed and Sodia, near the front of the crowd, gaped, mouth open in an unbecoming way. Rita nearly snorted. It figured that blondie knight-boy would fall for dutiful knight-girl and ask the Emperor for permission instead of asking her like any sane person.

"Secondly, to Yuri Lowell and Princess Estellise, I grant the Princess the right to choose her own husband and Yuri Lowell the right to court royalty if he so chooses." Estelle blushed and clasped her hands together, lips trembling, and Yuri reached out to pull one away and hold it, gently. Rita felt her lips – unwillingly – moving up into a smile. They were so disgustingly perfect it made her nauseous. Happy and nauseous.

"Thirdly, I grant Karol Capel, Judith Dragoon, and the guild Brave Vesperia the protection of the Empire and an outpost in Zaphias, as well as 7200000 gald for their services. A job well done, Brave Vesperia." Polite laughter; Karol looked like his face would split in two if his smile got any wider. Judith still looked amused, but her eyes were shining, and even Yuri was smiling. Raven wiped a fake tear from the corner of his eye and sniffed loudly. Stupid old faker.

"Fourthly, I grant Raven of Altosk 24000 gald and the right to dispose of the late Captain Schwann's possessions as he pleases. I have heard that they were very close friends, and the Captain left no will." Raven gasped and clutched his heart, looking happy enough, she supposed; it was enough that he wouldn't think of something he wanted from inside the castle and ask them to help him break in.

"Fifthly, I grant to Repede – wherever he may be" – more laughter "- a free request, because I have racked my brains for hours, along with my counselors, and we could not think of a single thing he would be in need or want of. Perhaps I should have included him earlier, with the rest of Brave Vesperia. At any rate, our kitchens are always open to him, along with the rest of the castle. I'm sure Yuri will pass on the message." Lucky mutt. Rita would much rather be in the kitchens right now.

Because now everyone was staring at her for some reason. Idiots.

Oh, wait. She was the last to be mentioned. Predictable.

"Lastly, but not in any way leastly, I grant Rita Mordio the title of Lady and all it entails, 2400 gald, and the newly created position of Head Imperial Mage, along with permanent quarters in the castle. Now, please give a round of applause to the heroes who saved the world!" Shouts rang out. Rita was too stunned to join in, as if she would.

Lady? He had made her a freaking noble? What the hell had possessed Ioder to do something like that? What did Head Imperial Mage mean, anyway?

Ioder was clapping too, and didn't protest overmuch when Yuri grabbed him around the shoulders and steered him over to the group, grinning, the official signal for everyone to go back to what they were doing. "Thanks, man," Yuri said. "You'll be a great … er … cousin-in-law, I guess."

"You're welcome, Yuri, Estellise, all of you," Ioder said, bowing his head. "It was the least I could do."

Now that was ridiculous. "No," Rita said tartly, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot on the floor to properly convey her irritation, "the least you could have done was nothing. Or you could have persecuted us for wrecking all the blastia. Rewarding this sends a public message of Imperial support, which is certainly not 'nothing.' And I'm sure that the nobles would hate to know that one of their titles and a bunch of their gald just got shelled out as 'the least you could do.'"

Ioder bowed. "I apologize, Lady Mordio."

"Give him a break, Rita," Karol complained, and then jumped back, covering his head with his hands. "Y-yah! Don't hurt me!"

After a moment, Rita decided that crushing him was so easy it just wasn't worth the bother. "… You're pathetic," she declared. "I'll get you for that later. And as for you, didn't I tell you to call me Rita?"

Raven swung an arm around Ioder. "Aw, isn't that sweet?" he said loudly, grinning. "I think our genius mage is in love."

"I'll get you, old man!"

It turned out that her new position as Head Imperial Mage required weekly reports to Ioder, something Rita was not happy about, especially since every damn person in the palace except Estelle went around calling her "Lady Mordio" now. Miss had been bad enough.

Well, at least it wasn't the full Council.

"… and so mana will never be a full substitute for aer, but some of the smaller blastias may be able to utilize it. A few successful tests have been completed so far in Halure, and …" Rita noticed that Ioder was staring at her, eyes glazed and head propped up by his hands, and stopped abruptly. "Hey! Are you even listening to me?"

"Huh?" Ioder jumped, confusion plain on his face. He shook his head ruefully. "Oh. My apologies, Lady Rita. My thoughts were elsewhere. I have been very busy as of late, but that is no excuse."

"It's just Rita, I told you," she said absently, getting a closer look at him. Now that she thought about it, those were some pretty dark circles. Just how busy was he, anyway? It wouldn't do the Empire any good if its leader were to collapse from exhaustion and overwork. "When was the last time you slept properly?"

He blinked dazedly. "The night before last, possibly? I can scarcely recall it."

"Okay, that's it." Rita stood up, closing the folder of notes – not like she needed it anyway – with a snap. "You need to go to bed and get some sleep, now. This research will wait, and so will everything else. I will order the guards at your door to keep you inside if I have to, but you won't be doing anything else until you look like you're actually alive."

"Rita, I can't just shirk my responsibilities in such a manner – " Ioder began to protest, swallowing hard. He swayed on his feet and looked momentarily stunned.

"And when's the last time you've eaten?" Rita asked in satisfaction and a minor – very minor – twinge of concern. "You need food and you need to sleep. I don't need to be a healer to tell you that. Do you think the Empire will run any better if you collapse in the middle of a Council meeting? Or worse, during a sparring session?"

Ioder winced. "You're right. I am being remiss in my duties. I apologize very much for wasting your time today, Rita."

"Saving you from yourself isn't a waste of time," Rita said dismissively, trying her hardest not to think of how cute his constant apologizing habit was actually sort of cute and annoying at the same time. She flapped the folder out of him. "Now get out of here. I expect you ready and rested for next week."

"Thank you, Rita." How did he always manage to sound so sincere? It wasn't like she was doing anything but boss him around. Anyone could do so.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Everyone else would have done it." Rita kept her head bent towards the table so he wouldn't see her damn blush, and after another moment, he left.

Rita sprawled back on Estelle's bed, which was neatly made, like always, though she was never quite sure if Estelle neatened it herself or if the maids snuck in to correct the princess's efforts, preparing to act like a teenage girl instead of a genius blastia mage for once in her life and indulge in some genuine gossip. "So, you and Yuri are engaged, right? When's the wedding going to be?"

Estelle bit her lip and blushed, hands fluttering in her lap. "Um, well, we're not sure yet. You see, it's tradition that the Emperor marry before the other unwed members of the royal family."

Rita sat upright, already steaming. "That's a piece of crap. Why would Ioder care? He's probably not going to get married for a few years. You and Yuri deserve to be happy now and have lots of sarcastic, perpetually happy children to grow up with the litters of pups the mutt is fathering all over the city."

Estelle picked at a loose thread and shook her head. Wait, why would her gown have a loose thread, anyway? She only fiddled with things like that when she was nervous. "Ioder wouldn't, really, but he's got someone he wants to ask, and I don't want to get in the way of his celebration. It shouldn't be for much longer, and Yuri is busy setting up the guild base at Dahngrest anyway."

"Oh." For some reason, the thought of Ioder having a noble girl – for that's surely what she was, a pretty, refined noble girl, one who talks like he does and would make a beautiful empress – made her stomach twist oddly. To think that he had been courting someone all these weeks and not said so much as a word to her. But then again, who, besides Estelle, would tell Rita Mordio anything about their relationship? "That's nice for him, then. I'm sure she's very pretty."

"Um, Rita?" Estelle looked up in confusion. "I was talking about you."

"Wait, what?" Confusion filled Rita, and next came the most logical step: uncontrolled rage. Estelle wouldn't be having this problem, she reasoned, if Ioder were dead. No reason to wait for a wedding that was never going to happen. Sure, Estelle would have to become Empress and probably be unable to marry Yuri because of that, but htose were just technicalities –

"Rita," Estelle said, looking worried, "where are you going? You aren't going to hurt him, are you?"

"Only a little," she promised, though her instincts were calling for blood. "I'll be back, Estelle. Don't wait up for me."

Then she went out into the hallway to begin her pursuit.

An hour later, Rita was thoroughly sick and tired of hallways and servants and nobles and guards, none of whom seemed to be Ioder, who she wanted to find and kiss – that is, kill. Kill!

She shuddered. Zagi moment. Incinerate sounded much better. Drown, perhaps. Strike with a meteor. Something resulting in painful death.

"Rita." She turned. She could recognize that voice anywhere by now.

Her hands formed the position and the red formula began to glow beneath her feet. "Ioder," Rita growled. "Any last words?"

He watched her calmly, patiently, with those damn blue eyes of his. "I love you. Will you marry me?"

The spell disappeared as if it had never been. Rita pondered, vaguely, whether there was still any air in her lungs, and if so, what she would use it to say in response? No, go to hell …? No, go marry a noble, one of your own kind? Yes, I love you too …?

Wait, what?

Rita gaped at the thought, mouth opening inadvertently. She couldn't really love him, could she?

Ioder took the opportunity to step forward and kiss her. His lips pressed against hers, and, well, Rita had always thought kissing was a useless pre-mating ritual involving swapping germs and odious saliva, something she would never indulge in, but … this felt … nice.

He drew back, gently, and bowed. "I apologize for my forwardness, Lady Rita."

Rita laughed, a wheezing sound almost like a sob. Not that she ever cried. "It's just Rita, you idiot. Did you really make Estelle postpone her wedding so you could ask me?"

"She wanted to do it." Ioder took a tentative step back. "I'll go inform her that she may proceed with the preparations, then. Good day."

That was a sudden change of subject. "Wait, why?"

He bowed again. "Because clearly you don't want to marry me, Rita. There's no reason for her to wait any further."

Now that was some faulty logic, somehow. Rita blinked. "I never said that."

"You never said you did want to marry me, either."

Rita put a hand on her hip and frowned. "Fine. I want to marry you. Does that make you happy?"

Suddenly she was in his arms and he was kissing her again, and this time was even better than the last. "Yes," he breathed as he pulled back. "More than anything. Rita." He looked alarmed. "I left the ring in my room when I came out to search for you."

"Like I care." She pulled him down for another kiss – he had gotten taller in the past months, she distantly noticed – and the ring was forgotten for the time being.

Estelle threw her arms around Rita, squealing, the first in the congratulations line, and Rita realized that it wasn't really so annoying anymore. Almost cute. "I'm so happy for you!" she exclaimed, muffled, as Yuri clapped Ioder on the shoulder and congratulated him on catching the equivalent of a man-eating tiger for his bed (Rita vowed to kill him later – sometime at the reception, definitely). "You two look so cute together! I can't believe you're married! Who'd have thought you'd be the first?"

First, Rita thought. Not third, after Yuri and Estelle's wedding. First. "Thanks, Estelle."

It occurred to her, right then, hugging her best friend and standing beside her husband (who was, unfortunately, Emperor, but, fortunately, a great kisser) that she had been worrying about how her name was going to go down in history books that she'd never see. Honestly, who cared? She was alive right now, and that was all that mattered. Even if she was now technically the stupid Empress.

She didn't need a hero. She could fend for herself, anyway, unlike Estelle, and she never really wanted to be a princess. She just wanted to be someone's first.

Rita laughed out loud, not caring who heard, and when Karol queried anxiously as to the state of her health, she didn't even hit him that hard.