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."