illustrated by rhoda penmarq, roy dismas , and konrad kraus
click here for previous chapter, here to begin at the beginning
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
dorine took immediate likes and dislikes to people - and she decided even more quickly than usual that she did not like celine.
dorine was a polite person, and she had spoken to celine when celine had sat down opposite her, pointing out that there were tea and coffee available etc, out of her usual politeness.
but she did not much care for what she perceived as celine's off handedly queenly response to her offer.
what she really didn't like was the way celine used her charms - oh so casually - on jolene, seeming to make the poor girl her slave as easily as picking up a fork or spoon.
dorine had thought at first glance she might make friends with jolene - not the way she yearned to make a friend of the still absent paulette - but just a friend.
of course she still could - if anybody could really make a friend at all in this place with all its rules. that remained to be seen.
after jolene's mild remonstrance - " i think we settled that" - none of the girls at the breakfast table seemed inclined to respond further, either positively or negatively, to celine's apology about being late the night before, and the matter was dropped.
quinette had entered, accompanied by olga, and took the last seat on the side of the table beneath the window, on the opposite end of the table from miss prue.
quinette mumbled greetings to sabine and florine, who sat opposite her, and sat looking down at the table. olga took charge of getting her tea and a croissant and ordering her a breakfast.
eight of the fourteen girls had now settled at the table. the guards began bringing plates to those who had placed orders.
a silence settled over the table. even florine and coraline stopped talking to each other.
nobody seemed to be doing anything but sipping tea or coffee or picking at their food.
"can i ask a question - again?" dorine finally asked, after getting a few forkfuls down. it wasn't bad, but she just was not hungry.
"of course, of course," miss prue answered with a slight start, as if she had started to doze off. the poor old thing looks exhausted, dorine thought. "i am glad at least one of you wants to ask questions." she looked down the table. "of course i understand if you are all tired and still somewhat - disoriented. perhaps in the next few days you will all feel a little livelier."
"can i ask a question?" ameline asked miss prue suddenly. she was seated in the center of the table, on dorine's left, with two empty spaces between them.
"yes, please do."
"have you ever done anything like this before?"
"have you ever -um - conducted - or supervised anything like this whole procedure before ? i mean, maybe during the war?"
miss prue laughed. "oh, my dear! what a question!"
"i am serious," ameline persisted. "of course you don't have to answer -"
"oh, no, it's a good question. an excellent question. it is just that - such an idea never crossed my mind." miss prue laughed again. "i can assure you this is all as strange to me as it must be to all of you. even stranger, as i am older and my brain is not so flexible."
"the thought just flashed on me," ameline said. "it just - it just flashed on me."
"where would i have done such a thing? i mean - i was on the losing side. as we all were. none of us would be here if we were not, would we?"
helga and some of the other guards exchanged amused glances, but none of them spoke.
"i suppose," ameline answered.
"you suppose?" suddenly celine entered the conversation. "what do you suppose, sweetie? we are all here, aren't we? none of us went down in flames with knives between our teeth, did we?"
"well," ameline answered, looking around the table, " some of them might have been a bit young -"
" 'them' is right. did you spend the war in a convent?"
"nor did i."
dorine was more startled by celine's outburst than ameline had been. she did not understand what had caused it.
"well," said miss prue, "i hope i answered your question."
"yes, " ameline answered mildly. "i did not mean to upset anyone."
"you started to ask a question?" miss prue asked dorine.
"i was just going to ask - what can we talk about, if we can not talk about what we are doing - the contest."
"anything else you like."
"but - if you don't mind my saying so, i find that hard to believe."
"really?" but prue smiled at her, encouragingly.
"so we can talk about politics?"
"as much as you like. why not? say anything you like. the war is over."
dorine looked around and down the table.
ameline beside her and celine and jolene across from her were attending to what she had to say.
further down the table, florine was talking softly to coraline again, but coraline seemed to be only half listening to her.
sabine was staring straight ahead, with an attentive look on her face.
quinette was staring vacantly down at the table in front of her.
"so we can say anything we want about the emperor?" dorine asked.
"i haven't had any personal contact with the emperor, and don't expect to, " miss prue answered. "i do not think he is much concerned with what you think. he has declared freedom of speech and freedom of religion throughout his domains -"
"religion! " ameline laughed. dorine laughed with her.
" - and i do not see why we should not take him at his word," miss prue concluded.
"can we talk of escaping ?" jolene asked.
"no, but that has to do with the contest. all the rules we have are to do with the contest."
"but if we are so free," jolene went on, "why are we here?"
coraline spoke for the first time. "we are here because the emperor - or more likely someone in his entourage - finds it amusing for us to be here."
"yes," miss prue agreed, "that probably sums it up very well."
"and yet," said ameline, "when all this is over, one of us will supposedly be empress."
"oh, yes, empress," celine agreed. "whatever that means."
dorine, ameline, coraline and sabine all laughed at this.
just then rosalind and nanette arrived by different doors, each accompanied by a guard.
"did i hear someone laughing?" rosalind asked. "you all sounded quite jolly."
"we were having a very stimulating conversation," ameline answered. "thanks to this young lady." she nodded toward dorine.
dorine flushed. she was actually quite heartened by the conversation, by the boldness at least some of them were showing. jolene had actually mentioned the subject of escape! and prue had hardly batted an eye.
dorine almost forgot that paulette had still not shown up.