The Cheat

In which I present a loving homage to Pratchett

The 33rd High Lord of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats was having a really bad decade. With his back pressed against a dubiously stained wall in a dubiously shadowed alley, he took stock: limbs intact, all digits present, eyes and ears functioning, lungs and heart a tad wobbly but getting the job done. Left sandal lost; robe torn; hood still covering face. And so far, so not followed. Things were looking up.

It had been fine at the beginning. Life had been simple: follow the Five Commandments[1] and reap the benefits of being born with a scrupulously honest face. He went from being the eternally hungry and perpetually grubby 15-year-old Billy Druthers, to the smugly sated and only slightly shabby, Brother William.

The only catch in the whole deal was Commandment Number Five, ‘Thou shalt Cheat Death’… And even there he’d had some roaring good luck: he’d drawn thirty years, a far longer reprieve than that of his brothers. Thirty years peace of mind and exemption from accidental death (brothers still had to be wary of death at the hands of others.)

As the bottom rung of a very creaky ladder, Brother William had only the vaguest interest in the politics of the brotherhood, but even he had begun to worry as High Lord after High Lord toppled from their lofty perch. In the space of two years, the brotherhood raced through High Lord #2 to High Lord #27; they’d barely had time to compose adequate welcome speeches before the next body turned up. Deaths #2 through #10 were all unfortunate results of the Fifth Commandment; the brothers became High Lord just as their time ran out.

The other deaths, however, were of brothers with plenty of time left on their slip. Hale and hearty High Lords started to suffer curious accidents – one was bitten by the rare and highly poisonous Kitten Spider[2], and another was believed to have smothered himself to death while sleeping (he was succeeded by High Lord #24, his roommate).

In his 15th year in the brotherhood, as the eldest brother, Brother William became High Lord #33. With his easy-going nature, decided lack of interest in power or politics, and thanks in part to the awe inspired by his 30 Year Fifth Commandment draw, Brother William was allowed to become the longest running High Lord in the history of the brotherhood.

But over the years, as his hair greyed and then abandoned scalp, strand by strand, it seemed that he was losing his enjoyment of the cheating game.

He had never had the slightest bit of trouble with the Second Commandment in his younger years; ‘Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing’, was an easy task for an angel-faced youth with puppy dog eyes. As a middle-aged man with an overly well-known face, the High Lord was now finding it decidedly troublesome.

The Commandment demanded that The Cheats were never to pay for a meal, and the more nefarious the plot to attain food, the more devout the Brother. The early years had seen the High Lord clothed in a well-patched dinner suit, his voice wrapped in earnestly plummy vowels, tied up with crystalline consonants. He would plead entry to the gilded, marble arches of elite restaurants, the maitre d’ would inevitably decline, only to be swept up in a tale of sorrow and disaster (or sometimes a tale of hope and triumph, if the mood took him).

When the maitre d’s of all the best restaurants had grown sick of his tales, he started visiting the second best restaurants, but they too soon grew wary of the man with the rapidly sagging angel face. Gradually, he saw his evening meal turn from stuffed quail a la Contessa, to bangers and mash a la Kevin-what-works-down-the-pub. The doormen and barmen of the lesser establishments were also less inclined to believe his elaborately woven tales and so getting dinner had become a nightly trial.

The other Commandments had grown equally frustrating as time had passed – cheating on a young naïve girl was one thing, but Thou Shalt Cheat on Thy Partners was a damn sight more risky when your only option was your twenty stone, rolling-pin wielding landlady. After being turfed out of three different bedsits, the High Lord had decided to nullify the Third Commandment by avoiding the company of others. This had made his life easier, but hadn’t improved his mood.

Tonight though, it was the Final Commandment that was causing him trouble. The High Lord closed his eyes, quieted the thundering of his pulse and opened his ears to the sounds that filtered into the alley. A cut-off shriek from two dubious alleys along, the clicking sound of a mouse gnawing on rotten wood, footsteps, the sound of knuckles meeting cheekbone – footsteps.

The High Lord held his breath, the owner of the footsteps was making no effort to silence his feet: his heels hit the ground first with a click muffled by the grit that lined the cobbles, the toes twisted as the foot lifted away, a grating sound that punctuated each step.

HELLO BILLY. The voice boomed inside his skull.

FANCY. MEETING. YOU. HERE. There were hesitant pauses between the words, as though read from a script by someone with no idea of their meaning. The footsteps splashed into the entrance of the alley.

IT IS TIME FOR OUR GAME. At that, High Lord Billy of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats opened both eyes and bladder, and stared in horror at the robed figure.

“Oh, uh, hello. Is it that time already? I was sure it was next year – are you certain it isn’t next year?”

The robed figure did not respond, but withdrew a glowing timer from his robe and set it carefully on the uneven slabs at the High Lord’s feet. The sand in the top bulb was draining into the bottom half at a somewhat alarming rate.

“Right, right. Well, I get to choose the game, right?”

THE 32ND HIGH LORD CHOSE THE LAST GAME. THIS TIME I GET TO CHOOSE.

“Ah. So – so what’s it t-to b-be?”

I THINK… YES…  I RATHER THINK I FEEL LIKE A GAME OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS.

The High Lord reared backward, affronted,

“You want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors for my soul?! That’s hardly respectful! What about the almighty game of Kha-Lan? The reverent game of Shin-sou? What about a bloody game of chess?!”

THEY TAKE TOO LONG. I’M IN A RUSH.

“You’re in a rush?! I’m about to die and you’re in a rush?”

YES.

The High Lord’s indignant bluster fell away with a huff.

“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

WAIT… HOLD ON, I NEED TO GET THE WORDS RIGHT… WHERE WAS I… AH, YES:

33RD HIGH LORD OF THE ETERNAL WORSHIPFUL BROTHERHOOD OF CHEATS, ALSO KNOWN AS BILLY, I GREET YOU.

ACCORDING TO THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FIRST HIGH LORD AND MYSELF, I CANNOT TOUCH THE BRETHREN EXCEPT BY APPOINTMENT.

TODAY I COME TO YOU TO KEEP OUR APPOINTMENT.

IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE GRANTED ANOTHER 15 YEARS OF LIFE. IF YOU LOSE, YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO YOUR SOUL.

The robed figure paused and then held out a skeletal hand, bones so white they seemed to glow in the dimness of the alley, fingers curled into a fist.

Shaking, the High Lord raised his own hand.

ONE.

The fists came down.

TWO.

The High Lord met a pair of glowing blue eyes.

THREE.


[1] 1st Commandment: Go Forth and Cheat

2nd Commandment: Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing

3rd Commandment: Thou shalt never trust a brother

4th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat on Thy Partners

5th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat Death

[2] The Kitten Spider is covered in grey striped fur. It tucks its legs underneath its hairy abdomen and mewls like a cat until another creature approaches, whereupon it sinks two inch deadly fangs into its target.