The Story So Far
Coach Neuvil isn’t happy; Mytilan Militantes’ owner Cassandra Thordwall is in gaol, the league is investigating the team’s off-field conduct, in a pre-match prayer session his players’ holy viper escaped its basket and terrorized the temple, the team’s carriages got attacked by Wharf Rat fans near the Eztadio Sanger, and it seems few Militantes fans have shown up. Then a note is delivered that says, “You’ve got a friend on the pitch. The hat’s the signal.” Neuvil gives a rousing speech to his players and sends them onto the pitch. Thordwall’s bodyguard, Umberto, hands him a hat, saying Neuvil will need it.
Gosling, the Luffing Lateen’s owner, swears in front of Guayamartí’s Procurator that Cassandra Thordwall was in his public house for a team fan-engagement party when the villa of the owner of the Wharf Rats, Eguardo Giamucci, was ransacked. League Officer for Conduct and erstwhile Neuvil nemesis Rennigan Slythe insists Gosling is lying but Thordwall’s advocate successfully springs the former pirate from gaol.
The Militantes start their first regular-season game with the ball. Jacyntha evades a wave of Wharf Rat attackers before darting forward and connecting with a pass over Ogre Yupanki. As the Militantes carry on, two of Jacyntha’s sisters help her take Yupanki down, whereupon Belyna fouls him right under the ref’s eye. But rather than sending Belyna off, the ref sees Neuvil waving a hat and allows play to run, leading to a Militante touchdown.
In the second half, the Wharf Rats rough up the Militantes before equalizing. Then Jacyntha’s inexperience shows; she forgets to catch the subsequent kick-off with her hands instead of taking it on her chest. It causes a turn-over and a Wharf Rat touchdown. Late in the game, losing two – one, and down four players, Jacyntha retreats, evades, and finally uses Umberto’s swim move to slip beyond four Wharf Rats. Her pass to Ellpay is caught and, as the enemy close in, Thordwall knocks over Chico’s basket, spilling the viper onto the sideline. The Wharf Rats panic and flee, leaving a channel open for Ellpay, who scores the equalizing TD.
As the Sanger goes wild at the astonishing conclusion to the match – somehow the Militantes ended up with a great many fans – a smug-looking Cassandra Thordwall applauds the Wharf Rat’s owner’s box.
They’re only friggin’ jesters.
Cassandra Thordwall couldn’t imagine what Karsgaard Neuvil was fussing about. “How hard can it be to beat a few clowns?”
Neuvil’s jaw dropped open so far it almost slammed onto the floor of the groundskeeper’s cottage they were using as their team headquarters. “I thought you were a footy fan.”
“I am. A big one. So big a one I bought a team and made you coach of it, if you’ve forgotten.”
He either didn’t catch or ignored her rebuke and spluttered, “But, but the thirteen sweet hells, how can you not know of the JESTERS?”
He looked truly flummoxed. Had she perhaps missed something? “I know of jesters. The Hierarchs each have one, I’m told. Kings and queens fawn at their jokes and clap at their juggling. Are they going to use bad jokes on us? Because if so, I can give worse than them.”
“No!” Neuvil was bellowing now. So much so that Umberto looked up from checking out the standings for the hundredth time; the Militantes were in fourth place. “Not jesters! THE Jesters! They are … they are …” his look changed from flummoxed to discombobulated. “They are the most popular team because they are designed to beat-up on everyone!”
“Isn’t every team? Look, I’m used to the leagues over in the Roiling Sea, and they don’t have any teams of clowns. You’re not making much sense to me, and hence, I’m not exactly convinced of the need to open my purse strings here.”
Neuvil took a deep breath. “Okay. The Jesters: think of them as top-drawer mercenaries hired by the league.”
“I don’t see them in the standings,” Umberto said.
Neuvil shook his head. “They don’t appear in the standings. Every season the league hires a squad of the nastiest free agents available and forms them into the Jesters. The fans love it. How could they not? They bring in a Sasquatch from the forests of Val-Hallá and have the best Havoc Warriors accompany it. Then they get a Werewolf or two from the graveyards of Val Mort, and throw them in with a Dark Elf witch, or a couple of Orc strikers, and maybe even a Rodentien sewer-slipper. Your vinr, your friend, Giamucci and his cronies on the Board of Governors will have seen our team and identified the same weakness I did back when we first met: lack of armour. You can bet your booty, every ounce of it, that they have hired heavily armoured heavy hitters. This will not be a team of dodgers and sprinters.”
Ah. Mercenary star players? Well now that’s different …
“That is why I need those purse strings of yours open. I had no idea you bribed the referees and subsidized ticket prices for our supporters in the last game. Doing it was a good idea. Doing it now is an even better idea.”
Umberto asked, “Why don’t they appear in the standings?”
“Forget the standings!” Neuvil raged. “The fans love them so much that every year they are automatically given a match-up against the weakest playoff team, so the league does not even bother to include them in the standings.”
Umberto nodded. “Sounds brilliant.”
“It’s stupid!” Thordwall snapped.
Neuvil shook his head. “It is both, actually. You shall see, Cassandra; such is their popularity that this will be your highest-earning game. But it is also an opportunity for us. If we beat them, people will really take note of us. But a victory against them is key for a more important reason. Come the end of the season, the league will use the results against the Jesters to separate teams with the same points.
“So I’m telling you, boss,” he continued, “that your winnings after the game will be higher, so spend some of them beforehand and work the same wizardry you did against the Wharf Rats.”
“I’ll think about it.” He didn’t look pleased by that so she gave him something else to think about. “Don’t forget that when you told me the weakness of Xonyxa teams I told you your job was to make them tougher, harder. Go make them a team the Jesters won’t treat as a joke.”
He stormed out the door and onto the training ground. It wasn’t long before she heard him barking about getting their gear on, huddling up, and doing stretches. As she and Umberto left the cottage and crossed to an awaiting mateo, the one precise thing she heard was “Where is Anahuark?”
As they descended toward the Bridge of a Hundred Arches, Thordwall spotted Anahuark at a belvedere shaded by palm trees overlooking Guayamartí Island, but the young Xonyxa wasn’t looking out over the city port and the Eztadio Menor. Rather, she was engaged in what Thordwall’s alter-ego, Pillaging Peggy, would call snogging a handsome, dark-haired man. As the mateo rolled past, the couple gave each other a last deep kiss before Anahuark scooped up her gear bag and dashed up the hill towards the training ground, giving the dark-haired man a final wave. So engrossed was the young woman in her beau that she hadn’t even noticed the observers on the nearby mateo.
Once beyond the belvedere she asked the mateo driver to stop. Then to Umberto, she said, “Call me a cynic, but I find it convenient that love springs to life in the immediate aftermath of taking points off the Wharf Rats. Follow that young bravo and find out who he’s working for.”
Umberto folded up the league’s broadsheet with the standings, tucked it underneath his coat, and hopped off the carriage. “Boss, you know, they could just be young lovers. It has been known to happen …”
“You big ’ol romantic, you!” Thordwall replied. “Perhaps you’re right, but over the past few days we’ve ransacked Giamucci’s villa, sidestepped justice for having made off with his treasures, and capped it off by bribing refs and using poisonous snakes to beat his team. Let’s just make sure, shall we.”
“Got it, boss.”
The gore on the horns is a bit much.
Bits of something that had once lived dripped from the minotaur’s horns onto the cobblestones of the strand. The Jesters had arrived and Karsgaard Neuvil, perched on a bench outside the Luffing Lateen, watched them with a scowl on his face as they paraded along the strand as though they were celebrated victors. Up from the docks they marched accompanied by so much pomp and fanfare that one would have thought it was the Festival of Night Star. The denizens of the Barrio threw coloured strips of paper made from seaweed as well as the odd jacaranda flower into their path, though they took care not to get in the way, especially of Goriada, the infamous minotaur.
The Sommer Sea Football League had once banned her for three seasons after she had gone wild at the end of a game and attacked the match officials (after having injured four opponents, it must be acknowledged). Well, the suspension was over and the league governors had, just as Neuvil thought they would, gone out and gotten someone particularly vicious to anchor the Jesters, a player capable of slaughtering low-armoured Xonyxas.
A full company of Guayamartí’s Hierarch Guard escorted the arrivals, not so much for crowd control but because these particular mercenaries were dangerous and needed corralling. To a man, every soldier appeared nervous … and with good reason, Neuvil reckoned. After Goriada came Daurig Doomgiver and Kwalgi Merdir’Huarg, two of the nastiest Havoc Warriors to have ever played footy, as well as Bull Centaurs Bryce Bushtramplla and Rory Ropethrorra, formerly of the famous Woe Vale Grievers, erstwhile champions of the Frozen Seas Football League. Then came a pair of stout and sturdy Havoc Dwarfs who Neuvil didn’t recognize, but then a witch that he did: Nytmir Curseweaver, who had claimed the title of most dangerous player three seasons earlier. Two of her Dark Elf brethren flanked Nytmir, one looked like the striker Oscuro Estab. The rest of the team was formed by goatyrs, deformed creatures with the torso, arms, and legs of humans but with goat-like heads fully equipped with twisted horns as well as cloven hooves and fur clumped on the extremities.
Thirteen sweet hells, they aren’t messing around!
The Jesters all took in the adoration as though deeply unimpressed, so much so it appeared they had already begun planning for how to destroy Guayamartí and all its inhabitants. The exception was Nytmir, of course, who beamed a broad smile to the excited crowd and held up her arms in triumph, waving her hands at the most handsome on-lookers. She had long, silver hair that spilled down her back, and violet eyes that seemed to take in everything; indeed, her gaze fell on Neuvil for a long moment and she blew him a kiss.
The tailing end of the parade of followers was streaming past the Lateen when Rennigan Slythe plonked down on the bench beside Neuvil. “So, Karsgaard, like what you see?”
“Make air, Rennigan,” Neuvil said.
Slythe gaped, obviously overstating his shock. “I do NOT fart!”
Neuvil sighed. “I meant go away.”
“Learn Martispeak better, then: not my fault you’re so thick. Wanna lay a bet on the result of the Jokers’ first match?”
“Hmmm … let me see … you are the new Officer for Conduct for the league in which I am a coach, oh, and the game in question is against my team. I think I shall decline.”
Slythe chuckled. “Timorous Karsgaard. Not like I’d tell anyone if I was laying a bet on the game too.” He patted Neuvil on the thigh. “Fifty-five casualties among them in the last season they played for their various teams, that’s over five per game. Fancy your chances?”
“Go away, far, far away.”
Slythe dropped a small packet into Neuvil’s lap. “Here, you might need this to calm your nerves before the match.” Then the big brute got up and did as Neuvil had demanded, leaving the coach troubled. He didn’t need to open the package to know what was inside.