one

She'd gotten the letter, just like every other single, eligible, girl between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. It was shoved under her door, and she'd stepped on it a few times before noticing that the yellow parchment was on her dusty floor. It was sealed with a red, official stamp, and the letter had been written out formally, inviting everyone to enter the contest by the second Sunday of the month, a day that just so happened to also be the day of her birth. Not that she'd know exactly when it was, not really, nor would she have anyone to celebrate another year alive with. She's been alone for much of her life, and anyone who ever had any care for her had always been insensitive to things like birthdays.

The letter spoke rather dramatically about the upcoming contest, stating that in all of the land of Misthaven, only twenty women would be selected to compete for the prince's affections before his twenty sixth birthday in the coming summer season. The women would be eliminated weekly, and would be quite generously compensated if they took time to participate, up until one woman remained, and she would be crowned the princess.

Emma, being one of stubborn will and hardened heart, let out a disgusted huff at the letter, tossing it away into her pile of kindling. It wasn't until pretty much every girl in the town in which she dwelt started asking her if she'd be considering entering into the ridiculous contest that she decided that she should.

Well, it wasn't just the girls in her town. It was the incessant ogling she endured day in and out by the men who she worked with and under. Sometimes they tried to get things out of her that she wasn't willing to give, and the day of the sign-ups, her neighbor and boss just so happened to swat her on the rear on her way out of his tavern. Hell. No.

If it weren't for that idiotic boss of hers, she probably wouldn't be standing here, with nineteen other girls, in the main hall of the castle. Her life has been one cascading mess after another, and if she didn't think that signing up might help her in any way, she would have merely moved and changed jobs. Again.

No, this is a chance for Emma Swan. In just being selected to perform in the kingdom's silly courtship ritual, she is already guaranteed double of her previous yearly income, even if she gets the boot in a week. Hell. Yes.

This will be a chance for her to get freed from tavern waitressing and sketchy as all get out men. She can finally break free from the place where she was abandoned time and time again. She can go find herself somewhere else, get the hell out of Misthaven, and make a new life for herself in some other kingdom, or realm. She hasn't worked those details out yet, but she will get out of this life of poverty and start fresh. It's all she's wanted, ever since she was a little girl hauling crops into the barn before going to bed on an empty stomach. She'd look out at the night sky and she'd wish so hard on stars for a better future, for a home and a family.

Standing in the grand main hall, she finds herself just as captivated as the other girls. Her jaw hangs open as she takes in the grander of the castle she's only leered at from a distance. Suddenly, the best dress she's wearing feels like a dirty mop.

She's not the only one from relative poverty. On the way to the castle, a wagon had picked up all of the girls who'd qualified, based on a private selection process that she, too, took part in. It had been an interview, and the person conducting it had taken an image of her with magic, for more ogling, she supposed. She'd been short and concise, but had tried her hardest because she was tired of being made into something in the minds of the men in her town, tired of living a life she's always felt she wasn't suited for.

Most of the girls were actually just like her, with greasy hair and cloth sewn dresses, worried looks on their faces. The kingdom isn't entirely the wealthiest in the entire realm, but looking at the castle, she's beginning to have her doubts that any of them will ever fit in with the royal lifestyle. A handful of the girls are dressed nice, with gowns that flow, and she feels a little uneasy. Why would a prince struggle to find a wife in a realm full of princesses and royal duchesses? Why pick from the poorest of the poor? A ruler that used to mingle with pigs and sheep? Seriously?

"Now," a woman, named Ingrid, smiles widely at them. "I'm sure you're all very excited to get acquainted with the castle. I just want to tell you how these next few days will go.

"First off, tonight, after we give you girls a tour of the castle, you each will be dressed in gowns and completely made over." Some of the girls gasp excitedly. Emma just rolls her eyes, giving Ingrid her attention. "You won't be meeting any of the royal family tonight, but in the morning, Prince Killian will spend some time getting to know each and every one of you. I'm so glad you're all here with us. You ladies are truly all so incredibly special." Ingrid smiles with her eyes, staring right at Emma. She feels, oddly, as if the woman is speaking for her and her alone. She gets chills at the sensation of the woman's eyes bearing down on her, like she's the only one in the room.

Ingrid clasps her hands together, and then turns to face a few of the guards that had opened up the doors for them. "Let's split the girls up into groups of five? Then we'll get them all into the Ladies Room. Okay?" The guards nod.

Emma gets corralled into a group that starts wandering the main floor of the castle. She can't really comprehend it all. She's here. In the castle. Trying to "win" Prince Killian's heart. Not that she will actually be doing it. That's what everyone thinks she's doing, so she has to play the part, but the fact that she actually made it blows her mind.

She's nothing but a bar maid, struggling to get by on lousy tips. Never in a million years had she ever thought this was where she'd end up after twenty years of desperation.

"This is the queen's study," Ingrid says with a gentle sigh, leading them to a room filled with books and beautiful tapestries. "She isn't here much now that she's fallen ill. But I hope you'll all get to meet her soon. She is such a beautiful woman. A great inspiration."

Emma frowns and some of the girls she's with do too. A guard steps into the room. "Lady Ingrid, if I could have a word?"

"Of course," Ingrid smiles. She turns to them. "You girls get to know each other. I'll be right back."

Emma would prefer to curl up into a ball, but that's not happening. The girl next to her smiles widely, holding out her hand. "Hi, I'm Tinkerbell." Emma takes her hand and shakes it. Tinkerbell is wearing a green dress with her blonde hair bunched upon her head in a bun, eying her like she's fresh meat.

"Emma."

The girl tilts her head as she surveys her, making Emma recoil a little. "It's nice to meet you."

Emma just nods. She's never been much for words. Tinkerbell doesn't seem to mind, turning to another girl, who says her name is Belle. She's a beautiful girl, dressed in a blue dress. Her eyes are soft and her voice is gentle, a bit of a contrast to Tink, who sets her hand on her hip.

"I'm Red." Emma turns at the voice. The girl standing beside her wears something more like what she's wearing, and a kind smile on her lips.

Emma feels more comfortable with Red. "I'm Emma,"

Red nods. "So you're from the woods, too, right? I think I've seen you around."

Emma bobs her head. "Yeah. I don't get it. Why do they want girls like us?"

Red shrugs. "You got me. I'm just glad to get the chance to be here. And for the extra cash. I'm trying to help my Granny open a shop and it's a little harder to do when you're a werewolf half the day."

Emma's eyes go wide. "You're a werewolf."

Red grins, nodding proudly. "Don't worry. I won't turn on you. My Granny made sure of that." She pats herself on the shoulder. "See this cape? It'll keep me from doing anything I won't remember."

Emma smiles softly.

"You're a werewolf?" a girl asks, eyes bulging. Red chuckles, nodding.

"Yeah. But I'm one of the good ones."

Emma smiles a little more at that, turning to allow the quiet girl with long brown hair to join their conversation.

The girl smiles. "I'm Aurora. I'm not from Misthaven, but I was invited by the king."

"Where are you from?" Emma asks, curiosity causing her to be a little ruder than she'd like for a first impression. Aurora clasps her hands in front of her.

"I'm the Princess of Safe Haven; a land not too far from here. My father thought it would be best if I tried to partner with Misthaven's prince in marriage, but the prince apparently had other ideas."

Emma raises her eyebrows, sighing as she nods in agreement. "Yeah. The more I get to know about this thing, the less I start to like it."

Red hums, opening her mouth to speak, but stopping when Ingrid returns. "Alright, ladies. Let's continue our tour. I'm sorry about that. But at least you were able to get to know one another a little."

Ingrid gives her another one of those knowing smiles before turning around and walking with them through the main hall toward the grand staircase that, once climbed, reveals a massive second floor. There are dozens of individual rooms, all with their own set of maids and help. Ingrid shows them the stairway that leads to the private bedrooms of the royal family, but tells them to never go there unless allowed explicitly by one of them.

They head back downstairs and regroup with the other girls in a big round room with clothes and chairs spun around in front of vanities. There are dozens of men and women dressed in uniform smiling softly at them when they arrive.

"All right, ladies," Ingrid grins. "I'll leave you to getting prepped for dinner. I'll see you then." Ingrid sets a gentle hand on Emma's arm, squeezing it slightly as she speaks. Then she goes, leaving Emma with a slightly sour taste in her mouth.

The help does a roll call of sorts, matching up with the girls that they're supposed to help, and when Emma's plopped down in her chair by men who call themselves Happy and Grumpy, she's just a little on edge.

A woman named Marian, who seems gentle and kind, joins them, and it helps Emma calm down after being told that she's going to need a lot of work to please the prince by the two prickly dwarves.

So, after being pricked and prodded, her hair combed more than it ever has been, her body scrubbed so it's red, and her body shoved into an impossibly tight red dress, she is sent off to join the other girls in the dining room, alongside Marian, who smiles at her on their way.

"I'm sorry for all of this," she sighs. "But we were told that we should treat every girl coming through those doors that they needed to be treated like princesses."

Emma winces a little, wiggling in her gown. "Well, if this is what it feels like to be a princess, I don't think I want it." Marian chuckles, stopping at a pair of open doors.

"This is the dining room. I'll meet you up in your bedroom after dinner. I think Ingrid said she was going to escort you all."

Emma smiles, nodding, though she doesn't know what to think about all of this so far.

"So you're my maid, then?"

Marian nods. "Yes, my lady. I hope you enjoy your first meal at the castle." She hesitates for a second, then holds open her hand. "Here, take this. I found it in your belongings. It fell out, actually, and I thought it would suit you now." Marian holds in her hand a necklace with a silver swan dangling from the end of it.

Emma takes the necklace, holding it gently in her hand. She's had it for as long as she can remember. The necklace that had been wrapped around her neck as an infant fits her properly now that she's an adult. She's never been able to let go of it, no matter how much she hated her parents for letting her go in the manner they had. She probably should have worn it to the castle, but had been in such a rush when the wagon had come to pick her up that she forgot.

"Thank you. It's the only thing I have left of my parents."

Marian gives her a sympathetic look. "Then you should wear it. Here." Marian helps her fasten it around her neck, smiling softly as she steps back. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you." Emma manages, unsure why something as silly as the necklace she'd been left in the middle of the forest with would make her so emotional. She watches as her maid bows before she walks away, leaving Emma with an open jaw as she hovers at the doors.

She steps into the room and is met with the sight of an incredibly long table with girls and empty seats on each side. Ingrid is standing by the door, smiling at her.

"Hello, Emma, why don't you have a seat? I'm going to give you all your first lesson in etiquette tonight, so I hope you're prepared." Emma just nods dumbly as she manages to move her feet forward.

She picks a seat next to Red, who smiles at her. "Hey, you look hot."

Emma rolls her eyes. "This dress is impossible to breathe in. Do you always have to wear a corset this tight?"

Red chuckles, turning so Emma can see the dress she's sporting is not so different tightness-wise. "You're telling me." Emma laughs, freely, for the first time in a while. Red smiles and tilts her head to her right, where another blonde sits. "Emma, this is Elsa. She's also not from Misthaven."

Emma quirks a brow. "Really? Where are you from?" Elsa smiles wide, her eyes gentle.

"Arendelle. I'm the queen there, actually. I was invited by the king, much like Aurora was." Elsa glances over at the girl sitting across from her, who smiles a little at the mention. "But I doubt I'll let myself get much further than this round of selections. I had no idea it was a contest. I just wanted to make a political statement."

Emma's eyes are wide with wonder. "Wow. You're a queen. So this must all seem really childish to you."

Elsa laughs. "Not at all. I'm enjoying being with a group of women who all have different paths of life. It's been a great learning experience so far."

Emma and Red both look at each other with slightly nervous smiles and raised eyebrows.

"Wow, that's insane." Red says, making Emma nod.

"This whole thing makes no sense," Emma turns to see a woman with her black hair tied in a ponytail. Her lips are pressed together in a firm line. "Mulan."

"Emma."

Mulan nods. "We were all told that this was a contest for the prince's hand and he isn't here tonight to greet us. Where is the honor in that?"

Emma shrugs. "Maybe he's busy."

Mulan huffs. "I'm only here because my family is indebted to this land's king. I don't have time to play princess with nineteen other girls. I want to go home."

"Geez," Red murmurs in Emma's ear. "Someone's got a stick up her ass." Emma bites her lip to conceal the smile that pulls across her lips. "Hey, so I was thinking earlier, and I'm wondering if this has to do with that story about the lost princess."

Emma narrows her eyes at Red, shaking her head. "The lost princess?"

Red gives her incredulous look, nudging her in the side. "You know. Everyone knows that story. It's been told forever."

She opens her mouth to respond, confusion creasing her brow, but stops herself.

"All right, ladies," Ingrid's voice cuts through the chatter. Everyone turns to the head of the table. Ingrid smiles. "Welcome to your first meal in the castle. Tonight, we'll start by learning some basic dinner etiquette, for those who are unaware."

Emma sighs. This is going to be a long couple of days.

..

Coming up next: Emma meets the prince and makes quite the impression.