“Stellan!” Simcess called, trotting down the stairs.
Stellan was enjoying the morning on his private balcony, soaking up the exquisite view and even more exquisite drink. He turned at the voice and gestured Simcess over. She signalled the maid to fetch a drink as she stood at the covered table.
“What’s up?” Stellan asked, sipping leisurely from his drink.
“We’ve got a problem,” Simcess said, rubbing her temples. “A problem the size of a slight female named Katya Nikolova.”
Stellan’s eyes grew wide. “The missing girl?”
“That’s the one,” Simcess said, helping herself to sit at the table. “I came to see what you want to do about it.”
“Well, did she give a reason as to why she showed up so late?”
“What do you consider an excuse?” Simcess chuckled darkly. “She said she got held up on the riverboat in Newcrest. Something about trouble travelling the gallery on the boat. It was a vague answer, I’ll tell you that.”
Stellan sighed. It was a tricky topic. He knew he couldn’t let her in the competition without offending the other girls, but to turn someone who could very well be his future wife wasn’t fair either. If Katya was indeed telling the truth – and she had no reason to lie – it wasn’t her fault that she had come late. Stellan himself had traveled on the Newcrest riverboat, and knew it wasn’t always reliable. Things got lost in translation, things went missing.
“Let me talk to her alone,” He decided. “I can’t just turn her away without getting to know her.”
“Very well,” Simcess said, rising from the chair. “I’ll have the staff prepare the private study for you.”
Meanwhile, the girls sat in the parlor, glaring at Katya. Some were merely curious – Klavdiya immediately went up to chat with the newcomer as Natalia looked on, observing as a bystander.
“Do you think he’ll let her stay?” London asked.
“I’m not sure,” Raina admitted. “I think it would probably be smart to keep her. What if he really likes her?”
Kara sat off to the side, listening in.
He better not like her, Kara thought, taking a swig from the drink she’d prepared for herself. She knew she’d need it and a few more with how the day had been going so far.
Some girls decided to pull themselves out of the situation completely. Lyric retired to her room to lose herself in the sounds of her favourite guitar. Surrounded by posters of her idols and the fresh air pulsing in from the soft breeze outside, she allowed herself to forget the unwelcome surprise.
Katya was reprieved of trying to explain her absence to the girls by Stellan interrupting. He led her to a small study on the third floor to get the chance to speak with her privately.
“I’m not sure what to make of you, Katya.” Stellan said honestly, taking a sip from his tea.
“I don’t blame you,” Katya replied. “Here I show up late with a lousy excuse and expect you to welcome me with open arms.”
Stellan shook his head. “It’s not that – I understand the issues with that damn riverboat. I was actually wondering if you still wanted to join the competition.”
“Of course I do!” Katya exclaimed. “I want to be here more than anything. I spent the better part of my life focused on my career and my research at the science station. Now I’m ready to move forward with my life.”
“And you think the best way to do that is to compete against eleven other girls?” Stellan chuckled.
“Well, it’s certainly not the traditional way,” Katya conceded. “But I know there’s so much to learn here. I never had many female friends, and I just know by being here that could rectify it.” Katya blushed prettily. “Also, I saw a picture of you in the papers in my motherland. I can’t resist a blonde.”
Stellan laughed at her candidness. “Not a fan of the tall, dark, and handsome look?”
“Tall, fair, and handsome,” She winked.
“Well now I certainly can’t turn you away.” Stellan smiled. “Your room has been prepared for some time now, and I’m sure Alexandria could use a roommate. But you start today! The second challenge is coming up soon, and I think it’s only fair you participate.”
Katya nodded. “Gladly.”
And with that, Stellan walked Katya out of the room. Katya made it to the parlor, where Simcess and the other girls waited.
“Now that we’re all here, we can proceed.” Simcess said, gesturing for everyone to follow her through the winding hallways.
The girls followed the twists and turns for what seemed like hours. They descended dozens of stairs, opened heavy doors, and eventually found themselves stepping into the cool, damp air of a deep basement.
“Have a seat,” Simcess said, pointing at twelve chairs.
“Behind me is the door that leads to your next challenge,” Simcess explained.
“We’re here in the dark catacombs of the palace-”
“Told ya there was a scary basement!” Kara whispered to Raina.
Simcess narrowed her eyes at the interruption. “As I was saying…We’re here in the catacombs. The door behind me leads to a twisted maze filled with dead ends and distractions. Your challenge today is to enter the maze and find Prince Stellan, who’s hiding in a small alcove. Along the way, you’ll face multiple distractions. If you’re not one hundred percent focused, you will definitely lose.”
“Easy.” Klavdiya chimed in. “I have the focus of a laser.”
“I hope you do,” Simcess said. “Because if you don’t, and you enter the forbidden room, there will be serious consequences.”
“Like what?” Ming asked, pushing her turquoise glasses back up her nose.
“That’s for one of you to find out.” Simcess replied. “My advice to you? Don’t be intoxicated by your needs.”
The girls looked at each other, puzzled. There was genuine advice in that statement, but none of them could figure out exactly what.
“You’ll be let into the maze in a random order,” Simcess continued, oblivious to the confusion. “Let’s go.”
One by one, the girls entered the beginning of the maze, and the door slammed shut behind them with a harsh finality. They squinted against the harsh light that reflected itself off the white walls and floors.
No one was exactly sure what to do. There was only one hallway in front of them that sharply curved to the side. The girls stared at each other, waiting for someone to make the first move.
Eventually, Ming decided she’d had enough. Marching forward with sure feet, she lead the pack, followed closely by Shirley. Together they turned the corner and entered the labyrinth, unsure of what to expect.
The first one to be distracted was Raina. The bonsai tree was begging to be trimmed, so she picked up the sheers and began to cut. What design she was making was unknown. Perhaps a plumbob? Lyndsay watched in interest, ready to make a scathing remark on the quality of pruning.
Klavdiya had broken off from the pack, taking her own way – just how she liked it. A long, dark hallway stood in front of her, and she marched with purpose to the end of it. Something was calling her down this path, and she would follow it to the ends of the earth if it meant she would win.
Meanwhile, something else was calling another girl. However, it was not the deep baritone of Stellan’s voice, but the call of a guitar, desperate to be played. Lyric ran over to it, heels clacking on the concrete. Without thinking, she picked it up and began to play.
Meanwhile, not everyone was enjoying the adventure. London had not moved from the start of the maze. She had tears in her eyes as she surveyed the endless white around her. She felt trapped, and with the door locked behind her, she had nowhere to turn.
“London!” Ming called, walking over to her. “Why aren’t you exploring?”
London looked from one white wall to the next. She turned to Ming and with a trembling voice, whispered, “I’m frightened.”
Ming did a funny little dance, clicking her heels together in the air and squatting down to act like she was swimming through water. “Are you scared now?” She asked, twirling in unbalanced circles.
London laughed softly at the sight. “More scared of your dance moves than the maze.”
Ming chuckled. “Then let’s go!” She said, linking her arm with London’s and bringing her around the first turn.
On the other side of the maze, Lyric was still blissfully strumming her guitar. She had amassed a crowd of girls, all swaying to the chords.Ming had left London to watch. It was as if Lyric was a siren, calling all the girls to hear her song.
“This is so great!” Yasmine said, forgetting the reason they were in the maze.
There was one girl who was determined not to be lead astray. Klavdiya continued down that long hallway, still as sure of herself as she was at the start. Perhaps it was her strict Russian upbringing, yet the discipline she learned had taught her well.
Stellan peaked through the small window, seeing Klavdiya search. He stood quietly, trying to provide a fair game for everyone.
Klavdiya walked close to the door, then turned in a circle.
Some of the other girls had forgotten the mission entirely. Ming and Kara had sat down to play a fierce game of chess while also chatting up the new girl. Kara wasn’t impressed by Katya, and quickly turned angry. Ming watched with wide eyes as Kara got ready to unleash her anger.
However, Katya wasn’t the one who got the brunt of it. London happened to be walking by when Kara turned to face her. The evil, wickedness radiating off of Kara hit London like a brick wall. As Kara mocked London’s outfit, London found herself more and more dejected by the maze and it’s events. She trudged away from Kara, heading towards the comfortable bed calling her name.
While Kara was distracted, Ming took the opportunity to explore. She found an empty hallway with no pianos, guitars, or chess tables.
This is it, Ming thought excitedly. Blondie, here I come!
Inside the room, Stellan saw short dark hair, knowing it must be Ming. Her tattoos shone in the light, illuminating the careful designs on her chest and neck.
However, Ming was standing in a dark corner of the room, and could not see the head of golden blonde hair through the window.
She turned and walked away.
London was crying it out in bed while Kara became distracted by the futuristic video game in the middle of the maze.
“Is she even trying?” Natalia asked Alexandria.
“I have no idea when it comes to that one,” Alex said with a roll of her eyes.
As Ming made her way from the alcove, she found Raina and London perusing the giant bookshelf. It was tantalizing – hardcovers of every subject, fine calligraphy, spines waiting to be cracked open.
Unlike the two bookworms, another woman in a red dress was on the hunt.
Klavdiya had returned to the small spot where Stellan was hiding, and strutted up to the door.
Before she could open it, Katya came around the corner.
“There you are!” Katya gushed. She and Klavdiya had bonded during the maze. Having both grown up in another country with the hardship of building a life for themselves, they became fast friends. “I was wondering where you went.”
“I thought I’d check here again,” Klavdiya explained. “What do you want?”
Katya looked at her feet. “I wanted to thank you for your kindness.” She said, scuffing a shoe on the floor. “I know it must have been hard welcoming another girl into the competition, and yet you did it with class and kindness. So, thank you. Again.”
Klavdiya sniffled, showing rare emotion. “You’re welcome, my dear.”
The two hugged in a companionable embrace, feeling their friendship solidify.
While the two had their moment, another girl in a red dress sneaked by.
Lyndsay was done with books – in fact, she was done with everything that wasn’t Stellan. She glared as she stormed down the hallway, determined to find the prince.
And find him, she did.
Lyndsay scooted past Katya and Klavdiya, throwing open the door and smiling at Stellan.
“Lyndsay!” He said, letting her into the room. “Congratulations!”
The two walked out of the maze together, arm in arm. They set a date to have a grand dinner that night, surrounded by candlelight.
However, there was still something to be determined.
As the hours wore on, the girls had timed that they had been in the maze for a whopping twelve hours. Their needs depleted, and they became desperate. Some girls waddled to the single toilet in the corner of the maze. Some refused, knocking their knees together instead to try and maintain some dignity.
Eventually, the power of pee was just too much.
Yasmine found a staircase tucked away at the back of the maze. She followed it up, and practically screamed with delight at the toilet. She could pee! There was also a delectable meal of lobster waiting for her after on a small table.
As soon as she used the bathroom, the staircase disappeared. So did the toilet. And the food. All that remained was a small white table, imposing door, and mirror reflecting her horror back on herself.
Yasmine pushed at the door, grateful that it had been unlocked. Inside was a small but elegant room with a bed, chairs, fridge, bathroom, and everything one needed to live. There was a large door in this room as well, but much to Yasmine’s dismay, it didn’t open.
She sat in the chair, puzzled at what had just happened.
Simcess walked in the other door and locked it behind her.
“I warned you not to be intoxicated by your needs,” She said, taking the chair beside Yasmine.
Yasmine sighed. “I know what you mean now. Guess it’s a little late, though. What is this place?”
“This is what we call the Redemption Room,” Simcess answered. “It’s where a girl will come before she’s kicked out of the competition.”
“So that’s it?” Yasmine cried. “Just like that? All because I had to pee?”
“No, no!” Simcess said, trying to mollify the girl. “It’s called the Redemption Room for a reason, silly. That room you came in? With the creepy floors and toilet? That’s your final stop in the palace. On a designated day, you’ll be placed in that room and will have one final test.”
“It’s determined the day of. Painting, cooking, woodworking, you name it. Here in the Redemption Room, if you complete the challenge successfully, you’ll be welcomed back into the palace. Until then, you get to hang out in this little apartment space.”
“Are you kidding?” Yasmine asked incredulously. “It’s eerily quiet here!”
Simcess laughed. “At least you don’t have a roommate.”
“Funny.” Yasmine deadpanned, leaning back into her chair.
“You’ll be fine!” Simcess assured her, standing up and heading to the door. “I’ll see you soon, okay? Food will appear in your fridge as needed.”
Yasmine looked around the empty room, devoid of the happy chatter she’d become accustomed to upstairs.
Is this it?