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- Gwen -

THE NIGHT OF HER eighteenth birthday filled Gwen with dread. It was the night she had to choose her future husband and frankly her choices weren't looking good. All of the men her mother had pointed out were well into their thirties and even their forties. The thought of marrying one of them made Gwen want to throw up.

She sat alone in her room waiting for Lina to call her down. Her mother had instructed her to wait until all of the guests had arrived before she made her entrance. She absentmindedly traced her fingers over the silver embroidered roses on the sapphire brocade of her gown and wondered what it would be like if she wasn't a princess and wasn't required to marry at eighteen. She sighed and shook her head.

"Your Highness?" Lina's voice broke through her thoughts and she looked up.

"Is it time for me to come down?" she asked.

"Yes, Your Highness," Lina replied.

"Thank you, Lina," Gwen said and followed her out of the room.

They walked down the gilded corridors until they reached the doors to the ballroom. Lina gave a small curtsy and was about to leave when Gwen stopped her.

"Lina, wait," she said.

Lina turned around with a questioning look on her face. "Yes, Your Highness?" she asked.

"I just," she started and then faltered, "I just wanted to thank you for being my friend through all of these years. It has meant a lot to me."

Lina nodded her head. "It has been my pleasure, Your Highness."

Lina left after another curtsy, leaving Gwen to enter the ballroom alone. She steeled herself, put on a polite facade, and opened the doors.

"Her Royal Highness, Princess Gwendolyn of Elithriel," a footman announced as she descended the grand staircase.

Everyone's eyes turned to her and she tried her hardest not to hide her face. No matter how many times she attended balls and parties, she just couldn't get used to being the center of attention. She hated it with every fiber of her being.

Her parents greeted her at the bottom. Richard nodded his head at her, his eyes full of pride and Grace smiled at her and pulled her into a hug. Once they broke apart, they were approached by a tall, dark-haired man. He smiled and made a low bow to them.

"Gwendolyn, this is Lord Derrick, Duke of Linolais," Grace said. "He has requested a dance with you."

"It would be my pleasure, my lord," she said with false politeness. He held his hand out to her and they joined the other couples on the dance floor.

"You look very beautiful tonight, Your Highness," Lord Derrick said.

"You flatter me, my lord," Gwen replied. She hoped her words didn't sound as forced as they felt.

Their dance ended without more than meaningless compliments and formalities. After that, she accepted a few more requests with men just as tedious and obsequious as Lord Derrick. Finally, she came face to face with Lord Tyrone. Flashes of the horrible dinner passed through her mind and she had to suppress a shudder.

"Hello, my lord," she said with a slight grimace.

"Hello, Your Highness, I hope you are well," he said formally.

"Yes, thank you," she replied.

"I have hopes to become better acquainted with you despite our disastrous first meeting," he said as he twirled her around. "Would you allow me to court you?"

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