Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 175,957,962 Issue: 353 | 1st day of Hiding, Y10
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Cheaters Never Prosper


by mamasimios

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Also by dollgirl44

Princess Fernypoo, a blue Acara, looked up from the cards in her hand and studied the others sitting at the game table with her. She had been playing in Cheat Tournaments with this same crowd of competitors for several months now, and although she was getting better at reading some of their faces, there were a couple of regular players who remained inscrutable to her.

      Kalora, the pink Kau to Fernypoo’s left, wore a green visor to shield her eyes in order to prevent the others from reading her intent. What she didn’t know was that Fernypoo learned some time before that the Kau had a “tell”; whenever she was bluffing, Kalora’s ears would twitch. Kalora and the Princess were roommates while on the touring circuit, and Fernypoo took advantage of the close quarters to intimately study the only other female competition she had. Fernypoo watched the Kau closely as she played her cards.

      “Two sixes,” said Kalora as she laid two cards face down in the centre of the table. Fernypoo noted that Kalora’s ears did not twitch. The players all waited a beat to see if anyone would call “cheat”, and when no one did, play resumed.

      Next up was Agent 00 Hog. The yellow Moehog always wore a tuxedo to the table because he thought that it would impress the females and intimidate the males he played against. Although Fernypoo suspected that Kalora had a crush on Hog, she was unimpressed with him herself. Before joining the Cheat Tournament circuit, Princess Fernypoo had lived in a palace and was constantly surrounded by royalty and nobility who were always dressed in the latest fashions. Thinking back to those days, Fernypoo felt her heartbeat start to race; the other players could never fully appreciate what was at stake here for the Acara.

      Up until a year before, Princess Fernypoo enjoyed all of the privileges of her royal lineage. She lived in an imposing palace deep in the woods of Brightvale with her father, the royal Acara King. Fernypoo had an abiding love of the game of Cheat and challenged everyone she met to play it with her. She was constantly delighted by her own ability to best everyone she challenged, and she valued her playing skills as her one true talent. It was with horror and shame that she discovered, one day, that her father had instructed everyone to lose to the young Princess on purpose. Displaying her well-known hot temper, Fernypoo had stormed out of the castle and shouted at her father, “You don’t believe in me! I’ll show you! I’ll show you all!!”

      The blue Acara left her home and aspired to join the professional Cheat playing circuit. She learned that first she would need to win a regional qualifying round, and this proved much more difficult than she had anticipated. Having never played against anyone who was committed to winning, Fernypoo needed to develop an ability to detect when someone was bluffing. After losing many early games, this eventually became her greatest skill at Cheat. Subsequent to what seemed to her like a very long process of qualifying, Fernypoo did eventually earn her berth on the Tour. Eventually, her game play improved to the point where she now found herself: at the Cheat Tournament of Champions.

      “Two fives,” said Agent 00 Hog, flashing a suave smile at Kalora and Fernypoo and placing two cards face down on the discard pile. The pink Kau giggled demurely and plucked at the collar of her polka dot dress. Fernypoo studied the Moehog’s face, looked at the cards in her own hand, and decided to let Hog slide. As no one called “cheat” on this play, the turn passed to Spectre, the red Jetsam.

      With a flash of his red eyes, as though daring anyone to accuse him of cheating, Spectre played three cards on the pile. “Three sixes,” said the Jetsam, who then sat back in his chair with his arms crossed in front of his chest, incidentally flexing his anchor tattoo. Although Spectre was a millionaire, he preferred to wear a plain black T-shirt to the table. The Jetsam knew that no one’s true worth is displayed on the outside.

      Fernypoo’s heart began to beat even faster. “OK,” she thought to herself, “Kalora played two sixes and Spectre played three of them. One of them is cheating. Kalora didn’t twitch her ears, but Spectre never tries to bluff with three cards.” The Acara looked at the other players and could see that strategies were running through their minds as well. “Wait a minute,” she thought suddenly, “if Kalora really did play two sixes, then she would be calling ‘cheat’ now. That sneaky Kau! She bluffed! She must have realized I know about her ear twitches.”

      Just as Fernypoo was drawing this conclusion, Agent 00 Hog slapped his hand down on the table and called, “Cheat!”

      With a superior smirk, Spectre turned over the last three cards he had played and fanned them out for everyone to see: they were, indeed, three sixes.

      “D’oh!” said Hog. He took the handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the sweat on his forehead. With a shrug of his shoulders and a boyish smile toward Kalora, the yellow Moehog picked up the entire pile and added it to his hand.

      Princess Fernypoo was now free to play a card of any value on this turn. She looked at the last few cards in her hand and selected two of them. “Two Queens,” said Fernypoo, laying down the cards.

      “Hmph. Is that supposed to impress us?” asked Kalora. Turning to Agent 00 Hog, she added, “I mean, it’s bad enough she has to wear her crown to the table, right? Do we need to be reminded of the royalty thing constantly?”

      Fernypoo was familiar with this tactic, and while there was a time when Kalora’s words would have rattled her, the Acara simply smiled and tapped her finger on the discard pile. No one called “cheat” on the play, so the turn passed to Kalora.

      “Well,” said the pink Kau, “I guess I’ll play one King. How is the King, Fernypoo? Seen him lately?” Kalora placed one card face down on the pile and looked over at the blue Acara with an innocent smile.

      It was hard for Fernypoo to maintain her composure. She knew that Kalora was trying to provoke her volatile temper with this new jab, and she didn’t want to give the Kau the satisfaction.

      “He’s fine, thank you,” replied Fernypoo through slightly gritted teeth. “We’ll be getting together for the Acara Aquatic Festival in the Month of Relaxing.”

      How Kalora knew about Fernypoo’s anxiety over seeing her father again, after nearly a year apart, was a mystery to the Acara. As roommates, they had gotten to know each other fairly well, but as competitors, they had managed to keep much of their personal histories to themselves. Fernypoo knew better than to expose herself where she felt most vulnerable.

      “Oh, that’s right,” said Kalora, “the Festival. Must be nice to just show up at a big party like that and have everyone fall all over you. Most of us need to earn our way in the world. But I guess the rules are different when your father is a King.” The Kau looked sideways at Agent 00 Hog through her long eyelashes, and he nodded his agreement with her. “I guess,” she continued, “if my father was a King, it would have been a whole lot easier for me to get into this Tournament, for instance.”

      This was becoming too much for Fernypoo to bear and she rose rapidly to her feet with a menacing snarl on her face and a red glow behind her eyes. Before she could verbally attack Kalora, however, Spectre also jumped to his feet and signalled to the official that he wanted a Timeout. When the official noticed the small amount of time remaining in play for the day, he made the call to adjourn the game until the following morning, and dismissed the players from the table.

      Princess Fernypoo was fuming with rage as she watched Agent 00 Hog pull out Kalora’s chair for her and then offer her his arm, which the pink Kau accepted with a girlish giggle and a wink over her shoulder at the blue Acara. As Fernypoo stood there trying to calm her breathing, Spectre brushed past saying, “I thought Cheat was an individual game, not a team one.” Fernypoo stood rolling the pink pearls of her necklace between her fingers as she watched him walk away, trying to figure out what the red Jetsam had meant by his statement. Later that evening, she would find out for herself.

      As she did when she came home every day, Princess Fernypoo sat in the bath and wrote in her Journal. She found that it really helped her to sort out her feelings about her father to put them on paper. She also enjoyed dissecting the day’s Tournament play and planning her strategy for the next day’s game. While lost in this exercise, she heard the front door close on its noisy hinges and realized that she had been writing so long that the bath water had turned cold. Stepping out of the tub, she could hear voices coming from the Living Room.

      “That was a really good move, Kal. I thought she was going to explode. Ha ha ha.”

      “I know. Tee hee. I can’t wait to read about it tonight. Once she goes to sleep I’ll get the scoop on her plans for tomorrow, and try to find some more sore spots to poke at. Are we meeting for breakfast again?”

      “You bet, Kal. Good night.”

      “Good night, Hog.”

      “So that’s what’s going on,” thought Fernypoo to herself, “Kalora has been reading my Journal. That explains everything. She and Hog aren’t flirting with each other, they’re cheating, and Spectre knows it! Well, if she wants a scoop, I’ll give her one!”

      Fernypoo reopened her Journal and began to write, “Spectre warned me today that he had discovered my ‘tell’. He said that every time I bluff, I reset my crown on my head. I really hope I can remember to be aware of this for the final round tomorrow.”

      The Princess splashed the water in the tub to make it seem like she was just exiting her bath, and after some exaggerated preparing for bedtime noises, she stepped into the hallway and pretended surprise at seeing Kalora in the Living Room.

      “Oh, hello Kalora, when did you get home?”

      “I’m just getting in now, Fernypoo. I hope you’re not mad about what happened at the Cheat table today. ‘All’s fair in love and war’, as they say.”

      “Yes,” replied the Princess, “That’s what they say. I’m exhausted; I think I’ll just turn in. Good night.”

      “Good night.”

      Princess Fernypoo placed her Journal in its usual spot on her desk and went to bed. She pretended to fall asleep, and was unsurprised when Kalora crept into her room and removed the Journal. With a smile on her lovely Acara face, the Princess fell asleep.

       ***

      It was late in the final round of the Cheat Tournament of Champions, and tempers were becoming short. Agent 00 Hog had removed his bowtie and opened his collar, but he still needed to wipe the sweat from his brow frequently. Kalora was no longer giggling and batting her eyelashes, focusing all of her energy on her game play instead. Spectre remained cool with his arms folded across his chest, but there was an intensity behind his red eyes that chilled the others when they caught his gaze.

      Fernypoo was the next to play and she could feel the pressure starting to weigh her down. The Princess was to meet with her father soon and it was very important to her that she be able to impress him with her success. Defeat was not an option; she was relying on the game purse to buy a new gown for the Acara Aquatic Festival.

      “Two fours,” said Fernypoo as she laid down her cards. She challenged the others with her eyes, and even though it was a bluff, no one called “cheat”, and play resumed.

      “One three,” said Kalora, placing one card face down. Fernypoo assumed the pink Kau was cheating, but the pile was too big to make a rookie mistake. She let her slide. Play passed to Agent 00 Hog.

      “One four,” said the yellow Moehog as he placed his card on the discard pile and used his handkerchief to dab at his brow. No one called “cheat” again, and the turn passed.

      “Two fives,” said Spectre as he took his turn. Fernypoo levelled a stony stare at the red Jetsam, but could read nothing in his face. She had two fives in her own hand, and weighed the likelihood that he had the others, but was not able to convince herself that he was bluffing for sure. No one called “cheat” and it was the Princess’ turn again.

      “Two fives,” said Fernypoo, and as she laid her two cards face down in the middle of the table, she casually removed her crown, fluffed her hair, and reset the crown on her head. As she did so, Kalora and Agent 00 Hog raced to be the first to claim “cheat” on the play. They called for a ruling from the official and it was determined that the pink Kau had slapped the table first.

      With a smirk, Kalora said, “I guess your luck has run out, Princess. Give your Daddy my best.”

      “I will, Kalora, thank you,” said Fernypoo as she turned over her last two cards, showing the table that she had not been bluffing.

      Kalora snorted with anger and sputtered, “But... but... your crown... you reset it... you said that meant you were bluffing.”

      “When did I say that?” asked the Acara with mock surprise.

      “In your Jour... oh, never mind.” Kalora fumed and she placed the entire pile in her hand. It was the Kau’s turn to play. “Four fives,” she said as she played her cards.

      Everyone assumed she had these cards, and no one called “cheat”. It was Agent 00 Hog’s turn.

      “One four,” said the yellow Moehog as he placed one card face down on the discard pile. Fernypoo remembered that Hog had played one four on his last turn, too, and realized he must be cheating now.

      “Cheat!” called the Princess as she slapped her hand on the table. She grinned as she saw her tally increase by 32 neopoints, and was delighted to watch as the Moehog picked up the pile to add to his hand. Her smile disappeared, however, when she turned to Spectre to watch him take his turn.

      Laying down his last two cards, the red Jetsam announced, “Two Jacks and out.”

      “Cheat!” called Kalora in a last ditch attempt to prevent the red Jetsam from winning the round and the Tournament, but no one was surprised when Spectre turned over the discard pile to reveal the two Jacks.

      Princess Fernypoo bit her lip to stop herself from crying as she extended her hand to the Jetsam. “Well played,” said the blue Acara, and Spectre shook her hand before standing to receive his Gold Trophy.

     ***

      With great trepidation, Princess Fernypoo entered the pavilion where the main stage of the Acara Aquatic Festival was situated. She was dressed in the clothes of a commoner, and although she was comfortable with herself, she was dreading her father’s reaction. There, on the dais, she spotted her father the royal Acara King, and she joined the throng of Acaras who were lined up to pay him their respects.

      When she reached the front of the line, Fernypoo performed a low curtsy before her father.

      “Fernypoo! Is that you, my dear?” boomed the King, “Arise and join me. What is this nonsense?”

      The Princess rose and climbed the steps of the platform to stand before the King. With shame, she kept her eyes lowered as she said, “Father, you were right. I have failed.”

      “Failed?” asked the Acara King, “Did you follow your dreams and believe in yourself when you thought that no one else did?”

      “Yes, Father,” replied the Princess quietly.

      “And did you carry yourself with dignity and honour?”

      “Yes, Father,” replied Fernypoo, raising her eyes to meet her father’s gaze.

      “And Fernypoo,” asked the King, his voice becoming more gentle, “did you face your fears by coming here today, thinking that you had disappointed me and yourself?”

      “Yes, Father,” replied Fernypoo, her voice becoming shaky and her eyes starting to water.

      “Then how can you say that you have failed? I was wrong to ask my subjects to let you win at Cheat. However, I did not do it because I did not believe in you; I simply did not recognize that you were no longer a child. In that, I failed you, my dear. I now know better, and you have my support and respect whether you choose to return with me to Brightvale or to continue following your own dreams.”

      “Oh, Father,” said Princess Fernypoo, throwing her arms around the King’s neck, “then I have already won the greatest prize of all.”

      “I think we both have, Fernypoo,” replied the Acara King. “I think we both have.” Clearing his throat, the King boomed in his most magisterial voice, “I now declare the Acara Aquatic Festival to be open. Let the festivities begin.”

The End

 
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