The Story So Far
Assassins had interrupted the meeting between Cassandra Thordwall, former pirate and hopeful footy team owner, and disgraced former coach Karsgaard Neuvil. But the attackers, sent by the owner of one of the local teams, had been defeated and, once Thordwall had calmed Neuvil’s nerves, she had told him that if he didn’t accept her offer to be her head coach, she’d offer the job to Neuvil’s arch-enemy, Rennigan Slythe.
Slythe, nearly as big as a troll, but more quick and more cunning, had made a name for himself in the Frozen Seas League as the dirtiest footy player to have disgraced the game. He had also ended Neuvil’s playing career…
Naught says “You’re not going to score” like a spike through the arm.
It was Karsgaard Neuvil’s approach to footy. You could swap out the specific body part, but the principle held; it’s impossible to score a touchdown when impaled on a spike. In this particular case, it was the arm.
A Blood Devils’ catcher had snatched a pass out of the air and had been running down the touchline, a striker escorting him. As the only Hammarskjöld Nordhammers not stuck in the ruck, Neuvil and berserker Björe Liefson reacted, Liefson marking the striker and Neuvil tackling the ball carrier. The catcher was a good dodger but not good enough; Neuvil’s shoulder pad spike took the Blood Devil in the arm. True to form, the ball sprang free and bounced towards the Nordhammers’ end zone, while Neuvil crashed to the pitch on top of the injured catcher.
The opposition striker knocked Liefson onto the ball, causing it to bounce deeper into the Nordhammer half and a new ruck formed around it. As Neuvil scrambled to his knees, the Blood Devils’ ogre, Albañil Kránigrueso, stormed into the fray, knocking him down again. He rolled over and realized he was behind the Blood Devil line, the ref was nowhere to be seen, and there was no one nearby to support him.
That was when he saw Rennigan Slythe closing in. Over his years of footy, Neuvil had gotten to know few players like he then knew Slythe. The Blood Devil striker was one of those players who seemed perfectly reasonable and affable off the pitch but who, once the whistle sounded, transformed into a man of single-minded purpose … and that purpose was to maim. His eyes would go from icily stoic to enraged fiend at kick-off and once the game came to an end, he returned to the adulation-seeking, self-centred man consumed with sophistry and affectations of the landed gentleman. In truth he was no gentleman; his true nature came through on the footy pitch.
As Slythe’s studded boot hurtled towards his face, Neuvil grabbed the incoming foot and twisted, hoping to bring the dirty brute down. Instead, he came away with Slythe’s boot. The big man, near as tall as Kránigrueso, caught his balance as Neuvil rolled away. But Neuvil was still prone and Slythe came at him again, laughing. Quick for a big man and cunning in equal measure, Slythe feinted another kick, which Neuvil deflected, but the feint was meant only to pin down the Nordman and the foot stomped onto Neuvil’s chest. With a horrible weight holding him down, Neuvil couldn’t squirm free. He looked up into Slythe’s crazed eyes and for the first time since his rookie season, he felt fear.
Slythe stomped, not once but thrice, torquing Neuvil’s leg and exploding the knee.
The team apothecary examined the injury after the game, all solemn-looking, furrowed brow, bushy eyebrows pinched close together, a deep frown on his face. Then the healer went off and had a word with coach Iva Thorkellson, who spoke to Neuvil once the team talk was over.
“You’ve had a good run, lad,” Thorkellson said. “You made something of yourself: best Nordman runner over the past decade. You should be proud.”
“I am not done, my jarl,” Neuvil replied. Thorkellson smiled but there was no warmth in it. He patted Neuvil on the shoulder. Neuvil snarled. “I am not done!”
Thorkellson grew stern. “Maybe not, Karsgaard. But you’re done here.”
“My jarl, you cannot cut me! Not after what I have given to this team! The ’Hammers had not won a cup in a generation … I helped us win three including the Twin Seas Super Cup! We managed the first unbeaten season in the Frozen Seas League history, and how many times did I prevent the loss? You owe me!”
“That’s enough! You’re upset, so I’ll forgive your insolence this once. But hold your tongue now or it’ll go ill for you.” Neuvil glared up at Thorkellson but said nothing. “That’s your first good decision. Let me help you make another. Yes, you and I took this team to another level, but now we’re here, we can’t carry players who aren’t the best. You’ll be out a year with that knee the way it is. When you get back to match fitness, you’ll have lost a pace, maybe three. You’re a runner! What use is a runner who can’t run?
“So here’s your next decision; what do you do now?” Thorkellson continued. “The way I see it, you could heal up and then play in some backwater league for a mid-table team. Or, you could join me on the bench as an assistant coach.”
Neuvil shook his head, brooding on the jarl’s words. Finally he muttered, “Why would I want to coach a mob who did not even take revenge on Slythe for me?”
“Don’t go there!” Thorkellson snarled. “You know him; he’s hard to get. You yourself tried and failed a dozen times over the years. Don’t think the lads didn’t make the effort. Listen, you don’t have to decide right now. We sail for Mannheim tonight, making port tomorrow. You can either stay aboard and sail back to Val-Hallá, or you can come ashore and help get the lads ready to beat the Brawlers. Up to you. But I won’t have you griping about the team not swaddling you. I’ll toss you overboard.”
Neuvil glared daggers into Thorkellson as the coach turned and walked away. Then he gritted his teeth and got up onto his crutches. The agony flaring from his knee was like a stormy sea; it came in ever-mounting waves and threatened to drown him.
Rat-root eased the pain.
“You didn’t tell me you’d arranged watchers.”
Walking out of the Luffing Lateen, Umberto de la Calle glanced at Cassandra Thordwall and added, “Boss, I could’a used more notice before those assassins struck.”
Cassandra glanced up at her bodyguard. “Hmmm?”
Umberto explained, “When you sat him down and pointed out the bloke by the cantina, and the other one by the palm tree.”
“Oh, that. Look, I was telling him what he needed to hear. If I’d really had watchers, I’d have told you. You did well, though.”
“And you said there’d be no more than two.”
“Okay, okay, I see where this is going. Neuvil got a signing bonus and you didn’t. I’ll rectify that when we get to the inn. But for now we’ve got to go visit Eguardo Giamucci, owner of the Wharf Rats.” Umberto grunted but seemed satisfied.
It wouldn’t do to arrive on foot, so her bodyguard procured a mateo, one of Guayamartí’s handsome open-air carriages. Their driver negotiated the way through the rabbit’s warren of the Barrio, passed underneath the Sea Gate, and arrived at Avenida Marman. The earlier squall had freshened the air and the ride was pleasant, especially once they got in amongst the tree-lined streets of the Merchant Quarter. At length boutiques, cantinas, and workshops gave way to villas with high stone walls, often with wooden guard huts beside the gateways. They drew up to one such and Thordwall demanded entry. The mateo did its job; rather than send them away, the guard sent for the steward. The mateo also helped when the steward came; although the woman grew indignant when presented an audacious demand, she heard Thordwall out. When she got to the bit about inquestors coming along soon as part of an investigation into an attempted assassination in the Barrio, the steward listened most attentively.
“As a witness, I felt duty-bound to tell them who I believed had financed the attempt on Karsgaard Neuvil. But I now repent of it. The tale I heard about how Don Giamucci spent his morning might be simply that, a tale. Thus I need to speak to your master. He might set me to rights, allowing me to correct my testimony to the justiciary.”
The steward brought them into the presence of the successful spice merchant, less successful footy team owner, The steward brought them inside the villa, giving Umberto an appraising look. They went down a marble-tiled hallway and through an elaborate wood-carved doorway, into the presence of the successful spice merchant, less successful footy team owner, and even less successful would-be killer. Giamucci, flanked by a pair of brooding men built exactly like Umberto, sat behind an oaken table in the middle of a luxurious, octagonal study. He was short, balding, and sweaty, though the latter might have been because of the news the steward had shared with him about a failed assassination attempt in the Barrio. Giamucci didn’t offer to have a chair brought to her.
“Do I know you?”
“You know of me,” Thordwall said. “I’m Cassandra Thordwall, though you might have heard me called by another name. Pillaging Peggy.”
Giamucci’s jaw dropped open. Then he gathered his wits about him and said, “Pillaging Peggy? Ha! I doubt that very much.”
She gave him the sort of smile a nursemaid gives a stupid brat. “Umberto.” Her bodyguard stepped forward. The men on either side of the spice merchant rose onto the balls of their feet but relaxed again when Umberto brought forth nothing more menacing than a doubled-over rectangle of cloth. She tossed it onto the table and Giamucci unfolded it, revealing the sigil of his trading house embroidered on a ship’s flag. “That was taken from the Ghost Daughter last month. I can put an end to the piracy that’s been plaguing you. I can also help you with the inquestors who’ll be coming shortly to talk of your attempt on the life of Karsgaard Neuvil. And my help won’t even cost you a copper. In fact, it’ll staunch your financial bleeding. It’ll even help the Wharf Rats.”
He narrowed his eyes, though she could see he was holding his rage in check: no wonder … she and her brother had been targeting the man’s ships for the past half year. “I’m listening.”
And so he listened. Then he raged, cursed, and even threw a statue across the room. It took him a while, but as Thordwall had suspected, he finally got around to thinking about the numbers.
“You said it’d help the Wharf Rats. How?”
“My team, even if it’s coached by Neuvil, won’t be very good; he told me today it takes years to build a squad. Approve our request to join the league and the Wharf Rats get a game against a team of rookies. I imagine a man like yourself might even be able to ensure we were your team’s first opponents. Think about it, you’d be virtually guaranteed a win. One step closer to the play-offs with the stroke of a pen. Also, think of the spectacle, the rivalry! You can demand a higher purse for our game.”
He thought about that, pursed lips and narrowed eyes.
She threw in the last bit of bait. “And while it wouldn’t surprise anyone that the Wharf Rats win against my team, the comprehensiveness of the victory might be something we could discuss.”
Giamucci looked genuinely shocked. “You wouldn’t fix a match?”
“Me? Of course not. But I think I know someone who would.”
He shook his head, “Too risky, especially if you’ve hired Neuvil. The league’d have their eyes on him, close like. It’s the piracy that interests me. If you could make that stop …”
By the time the mateo got back to the Kingfisher, the inn at which she was staying, she was happy. Giamucci had promised her he’d bring her petition to join the league to the Board of Governors. He also said they’d discuss the matter of Neuvil’s alleged past match fixing. While he might have been lying to her, her guts told her she had Giamucci’s vote when the governors met at their next meeting, due the following week.
Her visits to three of the other governors, to talk about the “trade concessions” she could arrange (more protection from piracy), went even better than the meeting with Giamucci. By the end of the following week, she had permission for her Mytilan Militantes to begin play when the season kicked off a month later. Karsgaard Neuvil was also granted leave to return to the league and coach the Militantes.
Only, she didn’t actually have any Militantes as yet.
And she couldn’t stop thinking of Giamucci’s last words to her: “I might vote for you, but don’t for a minute think I’m done with you.”