Chapter 16 - The Empress

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The day of the challenge arrived for the red team, and the five of us were escorted to the dressing room to be styled. Michael Kent waited inside, along with his crew. His eyebrows shot up when he saw me, no doubt surprised I was still in the running. You and me both, I thought sullenly.

We were each escorted to a chair in front of a brightly lit mirror, where hair stylists and makeup artists fussed over our appearance. I still wasn't used to the process and didn't know if I ever would be.

Michael came up to me as I was getting my hair pinned, a tablet in hand.

"I'm surprised to see you're still here after the stunt you pulled. The king must really like you," he said.

I winced, not knowing how to reply. I couldn't tell if the stunt in question referred to my terrible poem or my insistence I go out in jeans and a hoodie. I didn't know if Michael actually knew about the former, so I opted not to divulge anything here in front of him. Especially not with the other girls in such close proximity.

I glanced over at Sabine, who was getting her hair curled. She regarded me suspiciously, eyebrow raised. I wondered how much she heard.

Michael held the tablet out to me. On it was a catalogue of various dresses. I scrolled through the menu absently, not knowing which one to pick. The details of the challenge were still a mystery, so I had nothing to guide me in terms of strategy. I settled on a violet cocktail dress with a gold floral pattern in the front, and handed the tablet back to Michael.

After the stylists finished with their work, the five of us were escorted to the palace's entrance. A black limousine waited in the circular driveway. The girls filed in carefully, not wanting to mess up their perfectly styled hair.

I sat by the window, hands folded in my lap. What was this challenge going to be? I hadn't seen Lydia or anyone from her team ever since they were carted off to get ready for their challenge shortly after lunch yesterday. Why did they keep the two teams separate? Why was there a need for all of this secrecy? The other girls wondered the same thing, judging from the conversations around me.

"I think it's some kind of test. That's why they don't want the others to spoil it for us," Aria Irons speculated. She was one of the dancers in Skyler's troupe, as well as Sabine's former roommate. She shadowed Sabine often, which meant they got along. I mentally noted to avoid her as well.

The other two girls were named Genevieve Grant and Katrina Spencer. Genevieve was the one who sculpted the king's bust, but I never really noticed Katrina until now. As if reading my thoughts, the girl turned to me, smoothing her straight black hair down with one hand.

"Avery, right? What'd you do for the talent show?" Katrina asked.

I cleared my throat, startled to suddenly be included in the conversation. "A poem," I replied, glancing across the cabin at Sabine.

She regarded me coolly, arms crossed, face emotionless. I thought for a second that she would say something catty, but she held her tongue.

Oblivious to the exchange, Katrina nodded absent-mindedly. "Cool," she said, though she didn't sound impressed in the slightest. "You must be a really good writer then."

My lips curled up as I fought the urge to snicker. If only these girls knew the truth. Sabine seemed to be fighting a similar battle because she briskly turned to look out the window, fingers drumming against the armrest.

After a fairly short drive, the limo stopped at a pier — he same one I saw from the balcony the night of my meeting with the king. The white luxury yacht stood in the dock, light emanating from the windows. Gilded letters on the bow identified this boat as the Empress. This had to be our destination.

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