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."
click here for previous chapter, here to begin at the beginning
miss prue reached under the table and produced two hats - a white top hat and a black homburg - and placed them in front of her.
the girls looked properly bewildered.
"are you going to pull rabbits out of them?" asked minette.
"oh, i like those!" nanette exclaimed. "can i have one of them ?"
"perhaps, when we are through," miss prue replied. "they may be a bit large for you. now, pay attention." she looked around. "each of the hats contains fourteen pieces of folded paper - very neatly and tightly folded paper, i might add - which will determine the content and style of the novel you are to write. the papers in the white hat describe the essence, or ethos of the novel you are to write - "
"excuse me, " ameline interrupted, "but what does that mean? essence? does it mean something like a pirate novel, or a vampire novel, or a locked room mystery-"
"oh, nothing so specific as that. for example, one of the essences is "violent" - you would write the most violent novel you can. another is "romantic" , another is "left wing" - "
ameline looked around to the other girls. "but that is ridiculous! what if i am not a violent person? or a left wing person?"
"these are the terms of the contest. i will explain more fully later and you can ask questions. may i proceed?"
"i want the romantic one!" at least two girls cried.
miss prue ignored this. "the black hat contains papers with the names of fourteen famous authors. your novel will be written in the style of the author you pick."
"oh, but what if we are not familiar with the author!"
"they are very well known authors. and you are supposed to be well read young ladies."
the girls fell silent.
"actually, the contest has shown some mercy in this regard - more than i might have myself. you will each be provided with the complete works - or at least a generous selection - of your author. your rooms will contain a library with these and other useful works such as the encyclopedia brittanica - "
"i hope it is the eleventh edition," exclaimed paulette, " or at least the fifteenth."
"i believe it is one of those, yes. also butler's lives of the saints, the golden treasury of palgrave, the historical essays of macaulay, and i am not sure what else -"
"the bible, perhaps?'"asked quinette, the smallest and most timid of the girls, who had not spoken before.
"yes, of course, the bible."
"and the bhagavad-gita?" asked paulette.
"yes, i believe we have sir edwin arnold's translation -"
"oh, bother this!" cried rosalind. "do let her go on, please!"
"sorry," paulette mumbled.
"where was i? why don't we just pull the papers? then you can ask questions. "
"what about the girl who isn't here?" dorine asked.
"she will get the two papers left over - obviously. we will start on my right, and go around the table. you can either come up and pick the papers yourself, or have me pick for you. ready?"
none of them answered. miss prue nodded to ameline, who stood up and picked a paper out of the white hat. she unfolded it. "feminist. cool." she stared at the piece of paper. "that means i get to write the most feminist book i can?"
"that's what it means."
"i can live with that." she looked around. the others looked back or looked away, not sure what to think.
miss prue pushed the black hat toward her. "now pick your author."
"bulwer-lytton! " a few of the others laughed. "well - we'll see."
sabine was next. she came up and quickly snatched a paper from the white hat. "left-wing." she looked at miss prue. "so i write the most "left-wing" thing i can think of, and i don't get in trouble?"
"the terms of the contest are that you indeed write the most "left-wing" thing you can think of. "
"this is weird," said laurene. "i thought we would pick something like the seven deadly sins or something. like something you'd do in dance class."
miss prue ignored this. "pick your author," she told sabine.
"oh yeah." sabine took a paper from the black hat. "graham greene. whatever"
"next." victorine, the youngest girl, was next. she stayed in her seat. "go ahead and pick for me."
"very well." miss prue took a paper from each of the hats. "ridiculous." this got a big laugh all around. victorine blushed. "yes, " said miss prue, "that means you need only write the most ridiculous thing you can think of. and your author is - kafka. "
"that's not a bad pick," said dorine. "i wouldn't have minded getting it." victorine blushed again.
perky minette was next. she came up and picked "violent." "ohhh - but i am not a violent person! " she looked around for sympathy. "can i trade with somebody?"
"absolutely not. pick your author."
"samuel beckett." she looked blank. "samuel beckett." she went back to her seat.
nanette was next. "pick for me, please."
"patriarchal! what the - i am not even sure what it means."
"look it up in the fifteenth edition of the encyclopedia brittanica ," drawled rosalind. she stood up, as her turn was next.
"and your author is proust," miss prue told nanette.
"proust. i need help here."
rosalind strode up to miss prue. she took a paper from the white hat. "anti-religious. huh. what religious am i to be anti?"
"that is for you to decide. let me say to all of you," said miss prue, "that some of these categories are indeed very broad. you will have to use your own judgment as to what is best meant by them."
"you mean to read the judges' minds," said ameline.
"if you want to put it that way," said miss prue. pick from the black hat, please," she told rosalind.
"sir walter scott. " rosalind rolled her eyes, and returned to her seat.
"i believe scott was the oldest author in the list," said miss prue. "next."
little quinette was in the last seat on the right. "pick for me, please, miss."
"non-violent. and your author is stendhal."
"that's a pretty broad category," said dorine. "that's another pick i wouldn't mind."
"who are you, the roving commentator?" rosalind asked her. "is anybody asking for your opinions?
"i'll say whatever i please, thank you very much."
"ladies, ladies. we have been here less than twelve hours. no temperamental displays, please. let's get through this." miss prue looked down the left side of the table. "i think it will save time if i make the rest of the picks. do any of you feel she absolutely has to pick herself?'
"yes," said dorine, "i would like to pick for myself."
"very well. anybody else? no? good."
"and by the way." added dorine, "are there not any women authors in the list?"
"yes, i believe there are a couple."
"two out of what, fourteen? that's great."
"i'm sorry. i didn't draw up the list."
"i'm sorry too. let's get on with it."
"you are a rude little thing, miss. you are not getting off to a very good start."
"i said i was sorry."
miss prue stared at dorine for another two seconds. "all right, you down on the far left, you are - "
"florine." miss prue took papers from the white and black hats. "right-wing."
"i - i'm not sure what that means."
"well, you will have a year to figure it out. and the author you will imitate is - gertrude stein."
florine just nodded.
"next - you are -"
"your assignment is - "politically correct."
"oh, i know what that means." coraline made a rueful little face. "at least."
"good. and your author is - thomas mann."
"moving right along."
"my name is paulette."
"paulette. you are the lucky one, paulette. you get "romantic"
"you don't seem all that excited. your romantic novel will be done in the style of - balzac,"
"oh. thank you."
"now you, miss." miss prue looked at dorine sternly, then softened her expression. "you wish to pick for yourself."
"yes, i do." dorine rose and approached the head of the table. she stuck her hand in the white hat, fumbled around in it and pulled out a paper. she slowly unfolded it.
"religious." she looked at it. "that might be the broadest category of them all."
dorine stuck her hand deep in the black hat. "and my author is - george sand."
"ah. happy now?"
"i'm not sure happy is the word. but thank you." dorine returned to her seat, clutching her two pieces of paper.
"we are almost done. you, my dear - ". miss prue looked at laurene and took a paper from the white hat - have as your assignment - "romantic comedy"
"oh!" laurene clapped her hands. "you didn't say anything about romantic comedy! all right!"
"and your romantic comedy will be done in the style of - dickens."
"whatever. romantic comedy. ha, ha!"
"and finally - " miss prue turned to jolene at her left elbow, and took a paper from the white hat. " you get - banal."
"banal? you mean i am supposed to make the book as banal as possible and i will get credit for that?'"
"interpret it as you wish."
"and whose style am i to write my banal book in?"
miss prue opened a paper from the black hat. "flaubert"
miss prue stuck the black homburg into the white top hat and placed them under the table at her feet. "now - i am sure you have questions." she looked down the table. "no?" no one spoke. now that the girls had their assignments, they all looked more bewildered than ever.
it had grown completely dark outside. the girls - still only thirteen of them - looked expectantly at miss prue as the maids cleared the long table of the remains of the tea.
"very well," miss prue announced. "i suppose we can not wait for our wandering girl forever." she reached into a briefcase beside her chair and took out a slender notebook of ruled paper, filled with handwritten notes. she consulted it briefly. then she looked up and muggins was closing the library door behind herself and the other two maids.
"first off - before we get to the contest itself - a few words as to your daily routine. you will each have your own room, of course. you will each have a personal maid, and you will each have at least two guards on your room. any communication with myself, during most of the 24 hour day, will be through them. you will have no contact with each other - none - except at meal times. you will have an hour and a half for breakfast every morning at seven o'clock and two hours for dinner at six. now listen carefully, for this is most important. you can converse with each other at these times but not - not - about the contest or the novels you are writing for the contest. the guards - and sometimes myself - will be monitoring you at these times to make sure that you comply."
"may i ask a question?"
"certainly. you are - dorine, correct?"
"yes. wouldn't it be a bit more civilized to call these persons monitors, or teaching assistants or some such, instead of guards?"
"they are guards. we do not engage much in euphemism in this etablishment."
"i have a question." sabine, the sultriest of the girls, spoke for the first time.
"these guards, or whatever you call them - are they human?"
"can we talk to them?"
"talk to them all you like - assuming they have any interest in anything you have to say."
"then are they female, male - "
"they are all female." miss prue smiled. "anticipating any further questions on this subject, you will not set eyes on a manfellow, or a boy person, under any circumstances whatsoever, the whole time you are here. "
"oh." sabine thought about this. "but suppose the place catches on fire?"
"if the buildings catch fire, might not some male firemen be sent to put the fire out?"
"a good question - showing imagination. i don't know exactly what the procedure would be in such a circumstance, but no - there will not be any male firemen."
"oh. just thought i'd ask."
"any more questions?"
paulette, the most serious of the girls, raised her hand. "yes, i have a question."
"what happens if we are caught talking about the contest - or violating any of the rules for that matter? are there punishments? what are they?"
"a very good question. i was just about to get to that. to say that you do not want to know what the punishments are - best just not to violate the rules." miss prue smiled.
"yes, that is all very well. i guess what i want to say is - how will the punishments affect the contest?"
"it is for you to decide how they may affect your progress. punishments will not disqualify you. as we discussed earlier, only death will remove you from the contest. and the judges will know nothing of your punishments or your time here. they will know nothing of you at all."
"here let me make a related point - one that i can not emphasize enough. i am not - i repeat not - one of the judges. i have no contact with the judges and do not know who they are. so to put it in plain language, there is nothing to be gained from sucking up to me on that account."
"oh," cried minette, the perkiest of the girls, "but that doesn't mean we can't be nice to you, does it? i mean, when we see you here at mealtimes."
"of course not. courtesy and good breeding are always welcome." miss prue looked at her notes. "here is a subject we have not broached yet - exercise."
"oh yes," cried nanette, the sauciest of the girls, "i am sure we all love exercise! are we to have any?"
"you can ask your guards at any time to take you out to walk on the grounds - providing no other girls are out walking at the time."
"how about riding? can we have horses - or ponies? riding is my favorite thing."
"absolutely not. no animals of any kind are permitted on the grounds."
"ohhh. not even cats or dogs?" nanette looked around at the other girls for support. "suppose we wander down to the kitchen? surely the cook will have a dog, or a nice little kitty to catch mice, will she not?"
"have you been listening? you will not be wandering down to the kitchen or anywhere else. i do not spend much time in the kitchen myself, but there are no dogs or cats there. i repeat, there are no animals on the grounds, not to ride away on, or anything else."
"well," said josette. "since we are on the subject of the kitchen - and since i guess i am to be the one asking such questions - can we get anything to eat or drink - anything at all - between breakfast and dinner ? " she looked around as if expecting laughter, but all the girls were looking at miss prue expectantly.
"you can ask the guards to get you something - it will be up to the cooks if they can spare anything."
"i guess that will have to do. thank you."
"any more questions?" miss prue paused.
"um. i have a question." rosalind, the tallest and haughtiest of the girls, spoke up. she had a high, twitty voice that made some of the others affect to wince. "these guardpersons - can they beat us?"
"why? do you expect to do something to deserve to be beaten?"
"i am just asking."
"if you break a rule, they will report it to me, and a punishment will be meted out. i hope that answers your question."
"but they can't just up and decide to beat us?"
"i'm so relieved."
no one else seemed to have a question. "very well then," said miss prue. "all in all, fairly intelligent questions. perhaps you really are a group of well bred young ladies after all. i hope so, as good breeding will help us all get through a long year. none of you asked the reasons for the rules - it should be obvious, to prevent cliques and collusion. personally, i would have made the rules a bit stricter, but i didn't make them. now." she turned a page on her notebook. "to the business at hand - your individual assignments."
"individual assignments?" asked ameline. "you mean we are not all to have the same assignment?"
"oh, no, no."
"that hardly seems fair."
"fairness - fairness. fairness has nothing to do with anything here."
the girls were getting restless. they had all arrived hours ago - all except the fourteenth and last of them, and they had been sitting on stiff chairs at the long table in the library waiting for her. it began to grow dark, and one of the maids came in and silently lit some lamps.
"how much longer are we going to wait?", ameline, the oldest girl (by a few weeks) asked.
"a little longer," miss prue answered absently. she looked out the window again, at a tree that seemed to hold some fascination for her. then she looked down the table. although none of the girls had met before their arrival at the school, a great deal of whispering was going on.
"you haven't taken a vow of silence. and you can get up and move around so long as you stay here in the library. please, talk among yourselves as much as you like. chatter away like the silly little geese that you are."
some of the girls took miss prue at her word, and rose from the table. coraline and florine, the two prettiest girls, who had been conversing most amiably, got up and moved to the corner of the library nearest the door, hand in hand.
now the maid lit a large lamp behind the head of the table. the room grew perceptibly brighter. a few more girls rose from the table.
"when shall we get something to eat?" asked jolene, the largest and fattest of the girls. she looked straight ahead and stuck her nose in the air in response to the smirks, eye rollings and giggles of the others.
"you want something to eat? you only needed to ask." miss prue turned to the maid. "mudgins, bring a full tea, will you? for fifteen, in case the last girl shows up. finish what you are doing first."
"yes, miss prue. i am finished now." and mudgins left the room. all the girls returned hurriedly to their seats in anticipation of the feast, except coraline and florine, who continued to talk in the far corner. coraline whispered something, and florine laughed loudly, her laugh filling the otherwise silent room.
florine flushed slightly. with a last glance between them, coraline and florine returned to their seats.
dorine, the boldest of the girls, spoke up. "so - this person who has not shown up - it can not bode too well for her in the contest, eh?"
"the contest will proceed on its own terms," miss prue replied. "what happens before it actually begins should be of no import."
"but," dorine persisted, "what if she doesn't show up at all? it seems to me she would automatically be declared last in the contest, would she not?" she looked around the table. all the other girls without exception leaned forwardly eagerly, waiting for miss prue's response.
"she will be here. count on it." miss prue answered evenly. "even in the extremely unlikely event she were to be hit by lightning or meet some other accident - a replacement will be found. the contest will proceed on it's own terms - with fourteen contestants."
the girls expectant looks vanished, and they fell silent for about fifteen seconds. finally laurene, the most languid of the girls, asked "can i ask a question?"
"yes, that is what we are here for.'
"i was just wondering." laurene twisted a strand of her blond hair in her fingers. "i mean, i've been wondering - and maybe some of the others have been wondering too - "
"i mean we are going to be here for a year, right? that's a long time and a lot of things can happen."
"so - what if anything happens to one of us?" laurene continued to twist her hair and looked around the room. "or two or three of us. what happens then?"
"what you mean is - what if you were to die? because no other excuse will be accepted for not finishing the contest."
"yes. i guess that's what i meant."
"this question has been anticipated, and considered, so listen carefully." miss prue paused. "once the contest has started, any deletion will be taken from the top, starting with second place, and move down. the first place prize will remain the same - and last place and its consequences. no matter how many places are eliminated, there will be a last place finisher. if only two remain, one will be first and one last. so consider - if any do drop out the chances of finishing first will increase - and the chance of finishing last."
"and if only one remains?" asked ameline.
"she will be considered to have finished last."
"and nobody will be crowned queen? how then will a queen be chosen?"
miss prue smiled. "that is no concern of yours - or mine."
"that hardly seems fair," dorine protested.
"the contest is about judgment, not fairness. in any case, the question could hardly be more hypothetical. as you could hardly be more protected. the full resources of a triumphant empire are here for you in the form of security and medical attention, and i fully expect us all to be here when the final results have been determined."
"how much longer are we to wait for our last contestant?"
"the tea will be here shortly. when you have finished stuffing your faces, if she is not here by then, i will consider proceeding without her."
the girls fell quiet again, except for coraline and florine, who continued whispering, but in lower tones. outside, the darkness deepened, and now the effect of the new lamps was to cast darker shadows behind them. they were all familiar - very familiar - with the basic premises of the situation they were in. they were all princesses, of various nations that had been conquered by the irresistible sargon xii. they had been brought to this school in a distant mountain fastness and would remain there for a year, while they engaged in a novel-writing contest. each would write a novel of a certain length and theme, and at the end of the year their efforts would be graded by a panel of judges, with whom they would have no contact and whose identities - and even whose numbers - they would remain ignorant of.
the winner would become queen to the conqueror sargon (whether "the" queen or "a" queen was not clearly specified). the five runners up would become the queen's ladies in waiting. the next two after that would become the queen's personal servants, and the next five after that the personal servants of the five ladies in waiting. this would leave the last place finisher. on the morning of the royal wedding, the last place finisher would be led into an arena, in front of the hordes assembled for the ceremony. there she would be ravished by a succession of beast-men specially bred for the occasion. when they were through with her, her body, dead or alive, would be burnt at the stake.
the door opened, and muggins and two other maids entered with trays laden with tea and coffee, cakes, scones, muffins and jam, and other delicacies.