Chapter 9 - Mojito

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Today's surprise was a shopping trip. As a thank you gift for our patience, all fifty girls were treated to a selection of clothing, jewelry, and shoes from the local stores.

Though I was by no means a fashionista, I was thrilled at the idea of owning something expensive. Few people could afford such luxuries where I came from.

We were all split into groups of five. I chose to tag along with Lydia, Anita, and Elise. A short, blond girl whose name I regrettably forgot joined us.

Each group got an escort, who was tasked with keeping us together and paying for everything. Ours was a dour faced woman in her forties who looked like she'd rather be anywhere else.

As we hit the various shops in search of the perfect outfit, I wished my friends from home could be here with me. They would have loved this. I resolved to shop extra hard on their behalf.

I ended up buying a knee-length mint green dress with a tulle skirt, a pair of strappy silver heels, and a teardrop shaped opal necklace with matching earrings. Lydia and the others nodded approvingly at my ensemble.

Elimination was scheduled for after dinner. The wait had been arduous and the impatience in the air was palpable. Everyone wanted to know the outcome of the interviews, including me. I already suspected what my fate would be, but I was nervous on behalf of the three girls I befriended.

This elimination looked like a much more formal affair than the last. Everyone decided to wear the outfits they bought during the trip, myself included. When I first walked into the dining hall I thought I had accidentally stumbled into some kind of prestigious award show.

When Melanie Caldwell walked in and began reading the names, there was no pretense. It was obvious that the girls whose names she called were staying.

My name was called halfway down the list. I was not surprised to hear it. Masking my disappointment, I joined the other girls who stood behind Melanie.

I glanced around the room and caught Sabine's gaze. She looked stunning tonight, with her long black dress and her hair curled like an Old Hollywood icon. She narrowed her eyes at me icily, no doubt jealous that I was called before her.

Lydia's name was called next, and I exhaled, relieved on her behalf and mine. It was good to have a friend in the competition, especially if Sabine ended up sticking around.

"I only have three names left to call," Melanie announced several names later. Sabine's name had not been called and I prayed it wouldn't be.

I caught Lydia looking at Anita and Elise, her face encouraging. I smiled at them too, hoping the remaining names belonged to them.

Sabine was glaring daggers in Melanie's direction. If I didn't know better, I'd say her eyes were gleaming with tears. Though I doubted she was capable of something as human as crying. Was it wrong of me to think that?

Much to my chagrin and Sabine's relief, her name was the last one to be called. Sadly, the other two were not Anita or Elise. They looked completely dejected. Lydia did too. I patted her shoulder reassuringly. She gave me tight lipped smile.

Sabine rose and sauntered over to join the end of the line. Her heels clicked menacingly against the marble floor and I wondered how she managed not to trip over the long train of her dress.

Melanie cleared her throat and the room fell quiet.

"I regret to say that those of you whose names I did not call are eliminated from the competition. His Majesty and I thank you for your time."

Her words were met with quiet resignation. I felt terrible for the eliminated girls. Worse still was the fact that I'd gladly trade places with any of them. It wasn't fair. I didn't want to be here, yet I had to stay while some other girl had her dreams shattered.

Melanie turned back to face the twenty five of us who were left.

"Would you ladies please make your way out to the hall, where Edgar will escort you to the lounge," she said.

Edgar turned out to be a stony faced security guard. He led us to the same lounge where we had our interviews. It looked different this time around. Less foreboding. The heavy curtains were open, letting in the evening light. I could see the sunset through the window, the pink and yellow hues of the reflected on the ocean's surface.

A tray of colorful drinks stood atop the coffee table. Edgar gestured for us to take one, then went to stand by the door, still as a statue.

I grabbed a glass of clear, iced liquid that was garnished with mint leaves and pieces of lime. I took one sip and recoiled. I expected something like champagne, but this was much stronger.

"So we both made it, huh?" Lydia said. A creamy orange drink was in her hand.

"Yeah," I replied. "Too bad about Anita and Elise though."

"I wonder what's in store for us now," Lydia said absently, running her hand through her long, strawberry blonde hair.

Melanie strode in as if on summoned.

"Congratulations to the twenty five of you for making it this far," she began. A few of the girls started clapping and cheering.

"However, the challenges are going to be more difficult from this point on," she continued. "You will find out the details of your next challenge tomorrow."

Great, more waiting. The other girls slumped their backs, thinking the same.

"The eliminated girls are in the process of packing their belongings. After they are finished, you will go up to your rooms and do the same," Melanie said.

Everyone's backs straightened and eyes widened. Speculative whispers filled the room.

"You are all now few enough in number to be able to stay in Rosethorne Hall. That is His Majesty's palace, for those unaware," Melanie let the last sentence linger.

She slunk out during the ensuing excitement. The girls' chatter grew loud and boisterous, no doubt aided by the alcohol.

"A palace, huh? Should be fun," Lydia said enthusiastically. I noticed half of her drink was now gone.

"I have no idea what a palace even looks like. I thought this hotel was as good as it gets," I admitted.

"Me neither," Lydia said. "I'm guessing it's a lot more extravagant than Duke Hale's estate."

"Who?" I asked.

"The Duke of New York," she replied.

"Oh, right," I nodded. The fact that her family served one of the dukes had temporarily slipped my mind.

Lydia looked thoughtful, then sighed deeply. "It sucks about Anita and Elise, but I there's no choice but to move forward."

"Yeah," I agreed, though I didn't feel their loss as keenly as she did.

However, I did not want to move forward. For the other girls that meant more opportunities to prove themselves in the king's eyes. For me, it meant exposing more of my vulnerabilities to him. There was something about him that was entirely disarming. I was afraid that given time, he would reach deep inside my soul and pull out the truth. A part of me, deep inside my core, jolted with a sick thrill at the thought. That part of me wanted it, wanted him. And it was terrifying.

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