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.