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Conventionally Yours
Author: Annabeth Albert

Chapter One


   Conrad

   “You can’t kill me,” I said. “You don’t have the strength.”

   In reality, I was already dead. My fate had been sealed by my own stupidity, but I wasn’t going down with a whimper. No, the last of my life might be spinning away, leaving me with only a dwindling collection of scrolls and my wits, but I’d rather go out fighting—or at least laughing.

   I leaned back, feigning confident disinterest. “Come at me.”

   “You’re rather confident for someone with no defenses.” Alden, my least favorite opponent, sounded almost bored, which only made me even more determined to hold on.

   “And you’re so predictable,” I shot back. Maybe I could egg him on, push him into making a mistake. It seemed like the only option I had left.

   “Dude. You are so screwed. At least your carcass is going to be pretty.” My sometimes-friend Jasper wasn’t helping any, taking great glee in my predicament.

   “Beg for mercy.” Payton, as always, was more pragmatic.

   I neither needed nor wanted an audience for this latest humiliation, so I tuned everything out, focusing every resource on staying alive.

   “I move to attack,” Alden said. The swing came, just as I’d anticipated, with Alden going all in, trying for a fatal blow.

   “Yeah, well, attack this.” I slapped down a card to create four tiny frog soldiers. Not much when facing off against everything Alden had at his fingertips, but it was the best I could manage.

   One more turn. It had become something of a mantra over the last hard, seemingly endless year. And yes, this was only a card game, and no, another loss to Alden wouldn’t really be the worst thing to happen to me. But regardless, I still wasn’t going to let him see me falter.

   “Really? That’s your response?” Alden shook his head, his weary expression making him look far older than twenty-three. He didn’t seem cowed in the slightest. He did superior better than anyone I knew, full mouth curving, lock of dark hair falling over his forehead as his hazel eyes gleamed. Fresh dread gathered in my stomach. My cheap-yet-effective mercenaries should have been just enough to hold him off and to get me to my next turn. But then Alden shook his head again and activated five scrolls, turning them sideways with long, clever fingers. “Unblockable Quest.”

   It was a hundred-dollar card, the sort of comeback that pro players trotted out like jelly beans, and so far above my current gaming budget it might as well have been gold-plated. But I had one final answer, my last card and my last scroll to activate it. “Peace Offering.”

   It would mean the sacrifice of my soldiers, but at least it would get me that one more turn.

   “Conrad.” The irritated way Alden sighed my name always made my teeth grind. “Peace Offering is one of the cards that got outlawed with the new rules. It’s no longer tournament legal. Didn’t you freshen up your deck last week like everyone else?”

   No, no I hadn’t updated a damn thing because I’d needed my last forty dollars for food, not cards. But I wasn’t telling Alden that, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of pitying me. Instead, I stuck my hand out. “Guess I forgot. Good game, man.”

   “Yeah, good one.” Alden barely glanced at me as he gave a perfunctory shake.

   “That’s right. You missed the release event last week when they unveiled the new cards and revised rules. Hot date?” Payton asked, leaning forward, long hair swishing over their shoulders, the soft hint of southern in their lilt making date sound old-fashioned and dirty at the same time.

   “You know it.” I leaned back in my chair. I wasn’t about to admit I’d been working extra hours at the pizza place, trying to replace that money I’d spent on food. I’d spent hours dodging irritable parents and hyped-up kids instead of being here at my favorite game store for the unveiling of a set I’d been looking forward to for months.

   Alden made a disgruntled noise. “Can we film his death reaction now?”

   “Sure thing.” Professor Tuttle swung his handheld camera in my direction. “Die, Conrad. Make it good.”

   On cue, I sank low in my seat, almost sliding under the table as I made noises like I was melting, like a cartoon character getting hit with acid. Elimination reactions were something that Professor Tuttle’s audience always loved, almost as much as his “Gamer Grandpa” game analysis. Gamer Grandpa was one of the most popular Odyssey vlogs, with Professor Tuttle analyzing our in-person card play as well as matches on the wildly successful online version of the game. He made game theory accessible to the masses, and we were all regulars on his channel. Jasper did a lot of the editing for him, Payton did some special effects, and Alden…

   Well, Alden did all the winning. He had a combination of the best decks and exactly enough infuriating skill to make him darn near unbeatable.

   Oh and me? I liked to think I was the eye candy of the group. Or maybe the comedic relief. I brought the sort of trash-talking our viewers loved. That it never failed to rile Alden was only a bonus. And I’d take being seen as cocky over the truth, which was that I was the professor’s latest charity case—a scrappy player with cheap cards, a fucked-up life, and a missing future.

   “Great. That’ll do it for this game.” Setting the handheld camera aside, Professor Tuttle bustled around, disconnecting the overhead cameras that pointed at our play mats.

   “They’re going to want the room back soon.” Jasper moved to help, collecting dice and counters and rolling mats. He worked part-time at the game store where we filmed the shows and was the reason why we got the private play room so often.

   “Arthur can wait.” Payton was one of the few people not rattled in the slightest by the store owner’s gruff exterior, and they gathered their stuff slowly.

   “Give me a minute and I’ll grab you some of the latest card packs, Conrad. I bought two set boxes, so I’ve got some to spare.” Ignoring Payton, Jasper continued to aim for employee of the year, wiping down the table.

   “Thanks, man.” There was a time when I’d been one of the store’s best customers, but those days were long gone, and now, even borrowing Jasper’s employee discount, I could barely afford to keep playing. I should have been too proud to accept the packs, but it was probably my only shot at updating my decks. I couldn’t afford to buy individual cards on the secondary market like Alden or Payton. No, I’d be limited to whatever came in the packs. And I supposed I could get lucky, score some rares, but luck and I were hardly on speaking terms lately.

   “I’ve got some commons you can sift through too.” Alden reached for his deck bag—one of those custom deals that held a bunch of decks in their boxes securely, nothing jumbling around like my duffel, which was often where good cards went to die.

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