illustrated by rhoda penmarq, roy dismas and konrad kraus
click here for previous chapter, here to begin at the beginning
"well then, i know you have all had a long day. i will ring for the guards to take you to your rooms. "
"our cells, "said dorine. "if we have guards, they must be cells, right?"
"call them what you like," miss prue answered good naturedly . "i think you will find them comfortable enough."
"do they have bars on the windows?" asked sabine.
"why no. but i don't think you will be climbing out of them. "
"are there moats beneath the windows, with alligators in them?" asked jolene.
"no. now those are enough silly questions. two last things i want to mention. each of you will find a complete set of rules to the contest in your room. look them over, please, and if you have any questions you can ask them tomorrow when we meet in the dining room for breakfast. and tomorrow we will make sure each of you has the proper library, as we discussed before. " miss prue looked down the table. "anything else?
minette raised her hand. "can i have one of the hats?"
"you said earlier i might have one of the hats - that you pulled the pieces of paper from."
"oh. well, the last girl still has to pull, when she arrives,"
"why? there is only one left in each hat. she is sure to get them, is she not?"
"yes, of course. i suppose you can have the hats, why not?'" miss prue brought the hats back from beneath the table. she took the black hat out of the white one, then reached in and took the last paper out of the white one. it was stuck slightly to the bottom but she pulled it off without batting an eye. she repeated the process with the black one, where the paper was also stuck lightly to the bottom. she placed the two pieces of folded paper on the table in front of her and handed the hats to ameline. "pass these down to her, please." she looked down to minette. "if someone else wants one of them , give it to her"
"is that the way of it?" asked dorine. "just ask and we receive?"
"if it's no trouble, yes." miss prue reached under the table and touched a button and a chime sounded, not too loudly. after a few seconds the door opened and two young women in gray uniforms entered.
"you will be escorted to your rooms two at a time." miss prue beckoned to the taller of the two guards. she handed her a piece of paper on which she had recorded the girls assignments. "get their names as you go, and write down the room numbers you put them in."
the guard nodded. she turned to ameline and sabine. "all right, you two first." they stood up. all the girls had fallen silent, even minette and nanette, who had been trying on the two hats and giggling over them.
outside in the darkness, the trees were swaying in the wind. a few raindrops appeared on the thick windows.
all thirteen of the girls had been taken to their rooms. miss prue continued to sit at the head of the long table, with all the lamps still lit. she had her ruled notebook open in front of her, and was doodling in it. mostly pictures of cats, and trees.
muggins the maid appeared in the doorway. "the last girl has finally arrived, miss."
"excellent. bring her in, please. "
muggins opened the door wider behind her and the girl entered. she wore her coat and a smart little hat, and had a large alligator bag on her shoulder. she was a little more stylishly dressed than any of the other girls.
miss prue looked up at the maid. "thank you, muggins. close the door behind you, please."
muggins left, and closed the door.
"well, celine, you certainly took your time getting here."
"oh, there was some kind of delay coming up the mountains. but you know i love those old trains."
the girl tossed her bag and her hat on one of the chairs and draped her coat over the back of it. then she came up and sat on the table on miss prue's right. she bent over and kissed her on the cheek. "miss me?"
"how can you ask me that?'" miss prue's voice wavered slightly. "you little minx."
the girl kissed her on the cheek again, closer to the lips. "well, here we are together again, duck." her eyes widened. "but under such circumstances! what a situation!"
"yes, yes indeed. i tried to give you some idea in my letters, but i had to be circumspect. of course you got all the official correspondance, like the rest of the girls."
"oh, yes. we have a year to write a novel, of what - about 130,000 words? that shouldn't be too difficult - if we have nothing else to do all day."
"actually it is 133,225 words. we can discuss all that later."
"and it is to be about what - anything i choose?"
"yes, my dear - you - you can write just about anything you like. you see, your theme - picked by lottery - is "universal" -
"ha ha! yes, i guess that is just about anything."
"and i was able to save it for you."
"oh my dear, and how did you do that?"
miss prue picked up the two pieces of folded paper in front of her. "my little scheme wasn't foolproof but it worked. i put just a smidgin of clear glue on these papers and stuck them to the bottom of the hats they picked from. of course one of them could still have picked one or both but they didn't."
"my, such a trickster."
"i had a good teacher."
"ha. and what is this second paper?"
"the writer whose style you are to emulate. one of the papers was 'pick your own' and that of course, is what you got."
miss prue picked up her pen. "but you do have to pick an author - i have to write it down."
"oh - how about anatole france." the girl yawned, and looked around the room and out the window.
" you must be tired. are you hungry?"
"not really. i had a lovely dinner on the train. but i could use a coffee - and maybe a little cake or croissant."
"i have coffee in my room. and some of those little cherry cakes you used to like."
"oh. so sweet."
miss prue blushed slightly. "another thing. you can have a room like the other girls, with a maid and guards - or - you can stay with me, if you like."
"oh. if i like. ha, ha! " celine put her hands around miss prue's neck and kissed her on the lips. "you mean you thought i would rather sleep alone?"
"so we can get away with that? how - circumspect do we have to be?"
"not very. leave everything to me."
"good. then i guess everything is settled."
"yes. but celine, listen, listen, before we go any further. you must understand how serious this is. i will do everything i can for you, but i can not do everything. i can only tell you what i told the other girls - i am not one of the judges, have no contact with them, do not even know who they are. in the end - you will be as alone as they."
"calm down, duck, calm down. everything will work out. we will prevail - you and i."