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Chapter 22 - Jane

I remember the first time I made it to the Trivia Master stage.

It’s not like we won. Hell, we didn’t even do all that well. We were a team of freshmen and sophomores who had an amazing streak of luck, enough to get to the quarterfinals and get crushed by over 150 points. But that’s not the important part. The important part is how exciting it was to even get there. I’ve won some awards in my time, some competitions, but it’s all invisible. No one notices what I do or cares all that much how I do. And then Trivia Master comes along, and suddenly I’m the center of attention. The walk to the stage, the recitation of our names to the cheers of the crowd, the warm glow of the lights – after a lifetime of fading into the background, it really is a thing of beauty.. Every year since I’ve done all I could to make it back there, just to feel that again for a few minutes.

This year is a little bit different, though. It’s the first year where we have a real shot at winning. Before, it was just an excuse for Isabel’s friends to get in front of the crowd, show off a little. But for the first time we’re truly competitive. I’m starting to realize why some people take this thing so seriously. This feeling...it’s a little intoxicating. I really like it.

Okay, so there are some things I still don’t really like about this. I still don’t know why Isabel flipped her own rules this year. She’s probably got some hidden motive or another, something she’s not willing to say out loud. You know what, though? I don’t care. I’m having fun, dammit.

Unfortunately, there’s always a killjoy around somewhere. I didn’t realize that myself until Monday, right before our quarterfinal match – the very first public round, as a matter of fact. Isabel and I were sitting around in the auditorium, killing time before everyone showed up. Hannah was off somewhere psyching herself up, while Karen was building a life–sized frigate or whatever it is that she does on her own time. The other team – a crew of musicians or DJs or something, I was never exactly clear – was absent, off doing something or other.

Isabel decided that it was a good time to talk strategy. “So what do you think our chances are?”

“Huh?”

“Our chances. You know, here.”

“Oh, these guys are jokers. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I meant, you know, total. Overall.”

It was odd for Isabel to worry about things like this. Thinking ahead isn’t really her thing. “Hard to say. The way I figure it, we’ve got the Raging Nerds in the semis and the Flying Brains in the finals. That’s a pair of very good teams.”

“Yeah, true.” Isabel was fidgeting, maybe hoping she wouldn’t spill some little detail. “Put a number on it. What are our chances round after this? Just hit me with an estimate.”

“Okay, this really isn’t like you. What’s going on? Why is this such a big deal to you all of a sudden?”

“Is it a crime that I want to win for a change?” Isabel seemed genuinely offended. She’s not used to getting questions like that. “These last few years were nice, but this year I wanna take a real shot at it. I’m taking this serious for a change.”

“All right. I didn’t mean to offend you.” I’ve learned that it’s best not to push these things. “I was just a little curious, but frankly, I’m on such a roll right now that I don’t care.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But as for the rest of the tournament, and stats, and...I just don’t care about that shit. I do know that the number crunchers have the odds against us, but that doesn’t mean much. I think we can really do some damage.”

Isabel nodded. “Well, I got a good feeling too.”

“I wonder where everyone is? The round starts in twenty minutes. There should be at least some –”

“Jane Anders?” A voice came from behind me. When I turned to see who it was, a clipboard greeted me, followed by a short and unpleasant–looking girl.

I looked her over. “Uh...you are?”

“Colette Henshaw, of the Council of Seelie. We will be conducting our quarterfinal later today.”

“Well...nice to meet you,” I said. “Is there something you want?”

“I’d like a minute of your time to discuss improprieties in this competition,” said Colette, still wagging that clipboard in my face.

“Uh...” I turned to Isabel for guidance, but she was as stumped as me. “...Sure.”

“As you may know, there have been rumors circulating about unsportsmanlike behavior in the preliminary rounds.” Colette’s voice was devoid of emotion, like she was giving a lecture on company policy. “You may have seen Edward Page’s piece on known cheating techniques, or heard the stories of false question sheets circulating through email. In light of this, I’ve taken it on myself to see that this does not carry over into the public rounds.”

“I can certainly understand –”

“As you may know,” she continued, cutting me off, “Ron Janowski has been recruited to record the rounds for the school website. I’ve arranged to obtain an early copy of the footage to analyze for potential wrongdoing. If there are any irregularities, I’ll know.”

It seemed like she was done. “Good. I’ll keep that in mind. Anything else?”

“I’d like you to sign this.” She shoved her clipboard into my hands. On it was a sheet with a dense mess of text followed by a blank space half–filled with signatures. “It’s an agreement that you will keep within the rules of the contest at all times.”

“You want me to sign an agreement that I won’t cheat?”

“No cheating or unsportsmanlike conduct, yes.”

“Forget it.”

That made Colette a bit huffy. “You’re refusing? Don’t you have integrity?”

“Of course I do. That’s why I don’t need this.” I started to hand the clipboard back to Colette, but Isabel grabbed it first and started signing it. “What are you doing?”

“It’s not gonna hurt anyone, Jane,” she said.

“That’s not the point.” I turned back to Colette, who looked fit to kill. “First, if I sign your little agreement, it implies that I was going to cheat in the first place. I wasn’t, so I don’t need this, like I said.”

“Excuse me, as you can see, I signed it myself,” said Colette. “And I assure you, I never had any intention of violating the rules.”

“I’m supposed to be impressed by you signing your own petition? Please. Plus, this isn’t going to stop anyone who was planning to cheat in the first place. It is entirely meaningless.” I took the clipboard from Isabel and handed it back to Colette.

“Hmph. Well, at least there’s someone with integrity on this team. I’ll be watching you.” Colette pivoted on her heel and stormed off, anger in her little footsteps.

“Yeah? Well, you harass the rest of my team with this crap, and I’ll show you integrity!” I yelled after her. In retrospect, it didn’t make much sense, but I think I got the point across.

“Why did you make such a big deal out of that?” said Isabel.

“Because it’s crap. You didn’t notice Aaron Bellamy’s name on there?”

“Seriously? That little lunatic signed on?”

“See what I mean? Integrity and that kid have never met. Anyway, I don’t need her permission to play clean.”

“Hey, doesn’t matter to me one way or another. I’m gonna go find our team, all right?”

I don’t think Isabel gets the value in taking a stand. Look, I know that this is an ugly little contest. There’s been foul play already and there will be more down the road. I just don’t think a stupid little petition is going to fix that.

But I didn’t have much time to think about that or anything else. A few minutes later, the inhabitants of Northwest High filed in to the auditorium to watch the spectacle. After the rigmarole of buzzer checks, the spectacle was ready to go.

“Good afternoon, and welcome to the first quarter–final round of Trivia Master. This match is between Pirate Radio and the Valkyries. Before we begin, let me go over the rules in brief...”

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