“You can trust me with anything, you know.” Stellan said kindly, gently grabbing Lyric’s hand.
“I know that. It’s about-”
“Stellan!” Simcess shouted, traipsing over to the couple. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere! It’s time for the elimination.”
“Oh, already? Just give me a moment.” He said, turning back to Lyric.
“No. Now. We have a schedule to keep, Stelly. Move it.”
Stellan sighed, knowing there was no refusing Simcess when she wanted something done right away. “Okay. Lyric, we’ll talk later.”
Lyric’s heart plummeted into her stomach. What if there wasn’t time to talk at all? Would she be leaving with the biggest secret she’d ever carried?
“You too, Lyric.” Simcess said, gesturing for her to come. “You’re not off the hook.”
Lyric inhaled deeply as she trailed Simcess to the opposite side of the palace. The other girls were already there, fidgeting nervously. Lyric took the only seat left as Stellan paced the room.
London was picking off invisible lint from her dress as Alex struggled to get comfortable in the stiff chair. Raina nervously played with her necklace as she recalled her last conversation with Stellan. Would her doubts be her downfall? Ming was also nervous – it didn’t seem like her relationship was progressing the way she had wanted it to.
“Every time the elimination comes around, I’m reminded of how hard it is to send all of you home. You’re all way too good for me anyways, I don’t know why you stay!” He laughed, trying to ease the tension that was palpable in the air. “Tough crowd,” He murmured when no one responded.
“I’m not going to drag this out any longer than I have to. Ming, will you come with me?”
Ming hung her head as Alex rubbed her shoulder gently. The girls all gathered together and embraced. They had all become great friends within the past many months, and losing one was like losing a sister.
“Keep playing that plum violin, alright?” Ming said, staring at Lyric deeply. “And you!” She said, turning to Raina, “Lay off the books. Alex and London? Try being cranky sometime – you might like it.”
London began to cry as Alex pulled out her camera and snapped pictures of their final moments together. Stellan waited patiently in the corner, and when Ming was ready, he led her to the front door.
“We were always better friends than lovers, weren’t we?” Ming smiled, coming to stand in front of the prince.
“We truly were. And we are – you’ll always be my friend, Ming.” Stellan said kindly. “We’ll get together sometime, alright? You can bring your man who I guarantee will be much better than me. He’ll have tattoos, hate stereotypes, and have a penchant for the colour turquoise.”
“That means a lot. If I’m being just as honest, I think your future wife is in that room. I can’t tell you who, but I have my suspicions.”
“I hope you’re right, for all of our sakes.”
“I am. Now let me go – I have to get out of this pantsuit – it’s so itchy!”
Stellan laughed as he pulled Ming in for a long hug. The two always had a slow, continuous connection that in the end just manifested itself as a lifelong friendship. It was what both of them needed. Ming felt no ill will as she took one last look at Knight Palace and the prince that inhabited it before walking away for good.
In the other room, Simcess joined the remaining four.
“It’s late, so you all need to get to bed. The maids have rearranged your room, and I think you’ll find it much more personal than before. You’re all good friends now – dare I say best friends. But remember, this is a competition, and it never hurts to be well-rested for the upcoming days. So no late night giggling, got it?”
The girls all nodded as Simcess chuckled. “Get to bed. It’s almost curfew!”
The day had been yet another long one, and so it took little time for the girls to drift off. The only exception was Lyric, who laid awake with tears stinging her eyes. On one hand, she was extremely relieved she had another opportunity to continue in this competition. On the other hand. she had to be the one to tell Stellan the news, and what then? What happens to her, to the other girls, to that adorable toddler Salem?
For the first time in her life, Lyric didn’t care about breaking the rules. She didn’t care about curfew. Stellan deserved to know the truth, and that was all that mattered in the end. So what if it cost her a spot in the competition? It was a small price to pay for what is right and just in the world.
She needed to see Stellan.
She sat up and looked around at each of the girls. She needed help with getting to his room, and she needed a girl who wouldn’t ask any questions. That eliminated Raina – Lyric knew that Raina would be naturally curious, but she couldn’t afford that right now. Alex was a wild card – sure, they were friends, but Lyric admitted to herself that she didn’t know Alex as well as she could.
That left London.
Sweet, perfect London who wouldn’t daresay anything if you told her not to.
“London!” Lyric whispered, shaking the girl’s slender shoulder. “London, I need your help.”
London woke almost immediately. Lyric had forgotten that she was an incredibly light sleeper.
“What is it?” London asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“I know this sounds crazy, but I need to get to Stellan. I know you can help me.”
“Me?” London froze, pointing to herself. “How can I help?”
“You know where his room is, don’t you? I know you used to explore the castle early on when there were enough girls to distract everyone.”
London set her lips into a thin line. It was true – the architecture of the palace had intrigued her, so she’d spent many a day meandering up stairways and down hallways.
“How do I get to his room?”
For the next ten minutes, Lyric and London discussed the fastest route to the upper floor. Just as Lyric was about to head out, London yelped, “Wait!”.
Lyric jumped as Alex grunted and rolled over. Both girls froze as Alex mumbled something incoherently before letting out a little snore.
“What is it?”
“You can’t leave the room dressed like that,” London whispered. “You’ll freeze! Here, take these.” She said, handing over her favourite fluffy robe and slippers.
Lyric stepped out of the room and sighed.
Leave it to London to have clothing like this laying around, she thought to herself.
Lyric slipped into the shadows of the hallway and slipped up the stairs. It was late enough that no servants were around, having retired to their rooms after a long day of work.
Not taking any chances, Lyric tiptoed in her bunny slippers to the next floor up. As she took another step, a loud squeak came from beneath her. Lyric hopped behind a curtain as she tried to calm the beating of her heart.
What on earth was that?
As Lyric took another step forward, the squeak sounded again. She looked down at her feet and slapped a hand to her forehead. Lyric’s slippers had a squeaker in them. Lyric rolled her eyes as she squeaked and squawked her way up the stairs. She was past caring at that point. Bunny slippers be damned – she would get to Stellan.
After what seemed like hours of walking, Lyric found the large doors leading to Stellan’s chambers. She lifted a dainty hand to knock when a cough sounded to her right.
Lyric spun around to find Luke standing haughtily with a smirk at his lips.
“Going somewhere, dollface?” He asked, sauntering forward.
“What I’m doing here is none of your business.” Lyric said icily, taking a step back.
“Stellan got to you too, huh?” He smirked. “Sent for you like he did for Kara?”
“Sounds like you’ve got it twisted. Stellan’s a gentleman – I wish I could say the same for you. I would place money on you manipulating an innocent woman to stir up drama with a person you call your best friend.”
The door flung open with a loud woosh as Stellan stood in his pyjamas, glaring.
“What the plum is going on out here?” He ground out, staring at Luke. When he noticed Lyric standing there, worry gripped him. “Lyric? Is everything okay?”
“No!” Lyric practically shouted. “It’s not.” She pointed a finger at Luke. “This man got-”
“Stop sewing lies, bitch!” Luke yelled.
Stellan’s temper snapped. “Hey!” He yelled back. “Don’t ever call her – or anyone – that.”
“Stellan, we need to talk.” Lyric said, grabbing his hand. “Now.”
“She’s got nothing to tell you, I can assure you that.”
“It’s about Salem.”
That got Stellan’s attention.
“Don’t listen to her, Stel. She’s manipulating you!”
“Hold your tongue, Luke.” Stellan sniped. He took a calming breath before continuing. “Look, the sun hasn’t even risen. Let’s meet in the morning with clear heads and talk this out. Is that okay with you, Lyric?”
Lyric nodded. She knew it would be easier to sleep knowing that Stellan would hear the truth in a matter of hours.
So she went back to bed.
When morning rolled around, no one seemed to have cooled off. Luke had the audacity of mock Lyric about her outburst earlier that morning, sending the girl into a tailspin.
“Before we start another screaming match, Lyric – tell me what’s bothering you. Please.”
Lyric met Stellan’s eyes with the deepest sincerity she could muster. “Luke is Salem’s father – not you.”
“LIAR!” Luke yelled, pounding the table so hard that the coffee mugs rattled. “Come on, Stel. You really think I’d do that to you? We’ve been best friends since we were children! This money-chaser doesn’t care about you, only about your crown!”
“That’s not true!” Lyric shouted, feeling the bite of tears sting her eyes. “Stellan, I’d never do that to you. You know me better than that.”
“What proof do you have?” Stellan asked, attempting to view things logically.
“She’s got none!” Luke argued.
“Shut up, Luke.” Stellan snapped. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then this shouldn’t worry you.”
Stellan gestured for Lyric to continue. She recounted the tale of the letter, observatory, and everything else she could remember from that night. Stellan’s eyes grew wide as Salem’s pudgy face appeared in his mind. The grey eyes, the sharp nose. The features that didn’t seem to be quite his.
“Oh my plum.”
“Stellan, you can’t-”
“Get out.” He said quietly.
Luke stared at his best friend, felt the coldness leeching from his skin.
He had to go.
“Goodbye, Stellan. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Lyric and Stellan watched Luke walk out, listening to the door click shut in finality.
“So, what now?” Lyric asked, swiveling to look at Stellan.
“I think it’s time we all paid a visit to Kara.”