I didn’t show my parents the clothes Kara had loaned me, but I did share her button and poster ideas. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with changes. Deciding to run for president had been shocking enough.
“You’re taking this seriously,” Dad said. “Good for you, Jaycee. If you need any help, let me know.”
“I will.” I got up and took my dishes to the dishwasher. “I might need to go shopping. Just for a few things, like a sweater and shoes. Maybe. I promise not to spend a lot of money. I’ll even take it out of my allowance.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Dad.
“Voluntary shopping? You?” Mom tweaked my ponytail. “I can’t wait to meet Kara. Anyone who convinces my daughter to shop must be an amazing person.”
“Mom.” I wanted to roll my eyes, but I didn’t. That would not have ended well. But it was just some new clothes. Did Mom have to treat it like a miracle? “I’m going to my room. I promised I’d play some Hero’s Sword with Stu. He’s feeling a little left out. I didn’t have any homework today.”
“Okay. Turn it off by eight-thirty.” Dad patted me on the shoulder.
“Got it. Thanks.” I ran out of the kitchen and took the stairs two at a time. I fired up my game console and searched for Stu.
You’re late came his message.
Dinner. I sent back. Are you going to complain or play?
Play. Let’s go.
We ran around the game for maybe thirty minutes. The storyline today was a rogue band of peasants rebelling against the nobility. Stu and I joked back and forth, squashing the peasant uprising without killing any people. It was almost like old times.
Hey, we should— His message cut off mid-sentence, and his avatar, Galen Lightningstaff, disappeared from the screen.
Where did he go? A power failure or some kind of glitch that got him kicked off, maybe. I kept playing, assuming he’d return. After five minutes, Stu hadn’t come back online, but a familiar message appeared on the screen. “Lady Starla is in trouble—do you accept the quest?”
Well, duh. What a stupid question. Knowing that no time passed in the “real” world while I was in Mallory, I didn’t worry about Stu coming back to find me gone. I toggled to yes.
After the flash of light faded, I was in the clearing, wearing the clothes and trappings of Lyla Stormbringer. Butterflies went wild in my stomach. The last time I’d been in Mallory had been more than a little unsettling, what with a kidnapped envoy, attempted murder, and definite knowledge of a wanna-be rebel in the Empire. Who knew what I was in store for this time.
“Lyla, there you are.” Roger Woodbridge strode across the clearing, clasping me in a quick, fatherly hug.
I adored Roger almost as much as my real dad. I know, kind of silly to love a video game character, but there you have it. “Here I am. What’s the problem this time?”
“What makes you think there is a problem? Perhaps we just wanted to see you.” Roger’s voice teased, but his eyes were dark, a sign of something serious.
“Isn’t that how this works?” I crossed my arms and lifted an eyebrow. “Something goes wrong, and boom, here I am. You claimed it was a social call last time and look what happened.”
“What is it this time? Or do you want to go to Mallory Manor first?”
“Let’s talk. I want to make sure you are aware of the situation before you meet our, um, guest.” He gestured to a tree stump, slightly back in the shade where we could sit in relative comfort.
“An ‘um guest?’ Is this person a guest or not?” I adjusted my sword belt and sat on the stump.
“Technically she is.” Roger leaned against a tree. “Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”
“Perhaps you should.”
“Two days ago, a young woman showed up at Mallory asking for sanctuary. She was tired, dirty, and had obviously walked a long way. She gave her name as Rowenna Blacking, daughter and youngest child of Lord Harald Blacking of Trevayne.”
I twitched. I knew Trevayne. That was Stu’s estate.
“Do you know of Lord Blacking?” Roger asked. Of course he’d noticed the twitch. He noticed everything. Also just like my dad.
“Only by name,” I said. I’d long ago decided that telling Roger he was a video game character was a bad idea. No reason to change my mind now. “If Rowenna Blacking is a lord’s daughter, why is she asking for sanctuary?”
“Lord Blacking died recently. Rowenna claims that it was her father’s intention that she inherit the rule of Trevayne. However, no Will saying that was found after his death, and no one else says that was his intention.”
“Well, that’s odd.”
“Yes. Additionally, she says her brother, Thorsten, has unjustly accused her of arson and theft so he can assume the rule of the estate.”
“And she came to Mallory because…” Lady Starla would have no reason to get involved in this kind of problem. What Trevayne did was Trevayne’s business. Rowenna must have known that.
“She says it is because Mallory is ruled by a woman. And has a woman hero. She felt her cause would find a champion here.” He shifted. “She is betting on Lady Starla’s sympathy.” He bit his lip.
“And mine, it would seem. But you’re suspicious.” I looked at him. Roger was not the type to doubt a person without cause, and neither was Lady Starla. “So is Starla. Why?”
“I do not know much of Trevayne,” he said. “I know even less of Rowenna Blacking. Lady Starla has had limited dealings with the father, but is not acquainted with the daughter. If Lord Blacking did intend to leave the estate to his daughter, why have we never seen her?”
“No. She did not attend inter-estate functions. Not even the balls.”
Roger was right. Odd behavior for someone intended to inherit rule of an estate. She could have at least gone to the dances at the Spring Consortium or Fall Council.
“We think the story is weak,” Roger continued. “It does not ring true.”
“And I assume there are other ways for Thorsten to contest the claim without resorting to framing her.” I was sure of that, at least. There were lots of game rules for challenges. Trust me, I knew that much.
It was completely possible that Rowenna’s story was true. But if Starla and Roger were uncertain, that was enough for me to be skeptical. “No one has seen this Will? No witnesses or lawyers have come forth?”
“None.” His lips pressed together. “Of course, perhaps the Will was made but never witnessed or finalized. That would not invalidate Lord Blacking’s wishes. It would simply make fulfilling them a more difficult.”
I stood. “Okay. To sum up, you want me to meet Rowenna Blacking, talk to her, and figure out if she’s really an unjustly accused innocent or if there’s something else at work. Right?”
“Right.” Roger also stood. “After the revelation of Dark Blade during your last visit, I think Lady Starla is not being over-cautious in wanting to validate Rowenna Blacking’s story.”
“Agreed.” I gestured toward the manor. “Well then. Let’s go talk to Rowenna Blacking.”
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