The Story So Far
During a training ground brawl, Anahuark injures Karolyse and re-injures Karsgaard Neuvil’s bad knee. Cassandra Thordwall breaks up the spat and demands to know its cause. Upon learning it was over a handsome bravo, she reveals that the young man was hired by the owner of the Wharf Rats to sow dissent amongst the players. She fires Anahuark and Cuxi-Mikay on the spot. When Jacyntha begs her not to let the players go and to let the Xonyxas deal with the matter internally, Thordwall says she’s already dealt with it and threatens to lash Jacyntha if she doesn’t get on with practice. The Xonyxas rally around their threatened teammate, puzzling Thordwall. Despite the pain in his knee, Neuvil calms everyone down and pulls his boss aside, saying they may have unwittingly hired a Xonyxa princess: Jacyntha.
The game against the Jesters goes horribly wrong. The Minotaur Goriada gores a freebooter hired on by the Militantes, then witch Elf Nytmir Curseweaver takes down Belyna, a Dark Elf upends Ellpay, and a Goatyr fouls her without the ref intervening. As the Militantes swarm to make the Goatyr pay, Jacyntha doesn’t see Curseweaver coming from behind and gets a kick to the head. When she recovers her wits, the game is nearly over, the Militantes are down 2-1 and Coach Karsgaard doesn’t seem to be quite there. He clearly feels no pain in his knee. He sways on his feet, muttering, “You bastard. You bloody bastard.”
Karsgaard Neuvil slumped down onto the stool in front of Cassandra Thordwall’s desk. “Am I? Pardon me, I did not know your time was so precious as to preclude a mateo getting stuck in the throngs of people crossing the Bridge of a Hundred Arches. Next time I shall cancel the city’s Festival of the Night Star.”
Thordwall narrowed her eyes and glared at her coach. She hissed, “You will beg forgiveness this instant.”
“Do you have wax in your ears? I already said, ‘Pardon me’. No wonder we got crushed by the Jesters; you did not listen to me, did you? You did not have Umberto make friends with the ref.”
Grimacing from the pain in his knee, Neuvil struggled to his feet. “I go out that door, I am never coming back.”
“Now it’s you with wax in your ears; I said ‘Get out!’ ”
Neuvil limped over to the door of the Kingfisher Inn’s study, but as he made to pass through, Thordwall’s bodyguard came barging into the room. “Boss!” Umberto said, “Pierce Rosethorn from the Quarrels and Duc Tancred from the Imperials are here. They wanna see you both.”
Neuvil’s knee buckled when he tried to push past Umberto. The bodyguard caught Neuvil by the arm, preventing him from pitching over. “You okay, coach?” He helped Neuvil get upright and balanced before asking, “Do I bring ’em up?”
Thordwall’s eyes burned with an inner pirate rage. Her piercing stare didn’t shift from Neuvil’s eyes as she nodded, “Have the innkeeper bring two proper chairs and a flagon of wine.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Umberto left.
Thordwall fairly spat out her next words, “Sit down before you fall down.”
He limped back to the stool and flopped back down onto it, rubbing his knee. “Tell me true,” he said, “you spent nothing before that last match, did you? Naught for the refs, naught for the fans, naught for a cheer team. There was certainly no physician to help our injured players.”
She remained silent for a long time, seemingly mastering her rage. As they heard footfalls coming up the stairwell, she said, “I got you three freebooters, did I not? And I needed the winnings to pay my advocate for springing me from Forteresa Almenara’s dungeons.”
“Oh, in the thirteen sweet hells, Cassandra, you looted Giamucci’s villa! Are you telling me you took nothing of value?”
“The booty sailed away with my brother.”
“Well, when does it sail back?”
She ignored the question and instead put one to him. “Your turn to tell me true … rat-root kills pain but brings on aggression: you’re using again, aren’t you?”
He met her gaze. “No, I am not.”
She laughed, though it wasn’t a merry thing. To the accompanying sound of Rosethorn and Tancred coming down the hallway, she replied, “That stuff can kill you: just so’s you know. How are the players?”
“Shaken up. They are visiting that freebooter who Goriada impaled with her horns. I hope that opens their eyes that the game can kill … as much as rat-root.”
She ignored his gibe and rose to welcome the player-coach of the Gloriana Quarrels, Sylvan Elf Pierce Rosethorn, and the current owner-manager of the Guayamartí Imperials, Duc Tancred de Baston, a Chivalron émigré from over the Sommer Sea. Thordwall allowed Rosethorn to kiss the air above the back of her extended hand and she received a formal bow from the duke, which she reciprocated, adding, “Your Grace.”
The innkeeper brought in a pair of chairs and the flagon of wine, from which he poured three goblets, handing one each to Thordwall, Rosethorn, and Duc Tancred. Neuvil would have dearly liked some of that drink; instead, he notched up a further grievance against his employer.
Rosethorn was too much a Sylvan to get to the point of the visit, instead showering Thordwall with compliments on her ambition, the unexpected competence of her rookie players, and, of course, on her striking beauty. Finally Tancred cut in and said, “My lady, it doth grieve me to say the league Board of Governors hath betrayed their oath not to act in the interests of any single team or a component part of the whole.”
Thordwall perked up. “How so?”
“My esteemed colleague here and I spake; nary a single one of our free agent suggestions hath been chosen to play for the Jesters. But there may be a solution.
“The governors hath tarried inviting you into their midst,” he continued. “They claimeth they wished to make sure your Militantes didst not fold and prove yourselves ephemeral. We believe it is nigh time for thee to make protest and claim thy rightful place amongst us. We wouldst argue in your favour … but we wish to make certain of thine intentions. Shalt thee support us shouldst we demand a reformation of the Jesters?”
Thordwall narrowed her eyes and settled immediately on the problem Neuvil himself spotted, “But the Militantes have already endured their one game against the Jesters. Should we weaken that team before it faces all the others?”
Rosethorn smiled as though coddling an impudent toddler. “You err, beautiful lady, if you think the Minotaur and those Havoc Warriors could lay a finger on my kith and kin. And it is self-evident that should the Jesters have a few of my kind, they would be even harder to defeat.”
Duc Tancred chimed in, “And it is only our peasants … erm, commoners, who have not the coin for proper armour. My doughty knights and brave yeomen wouldst never fear such adversaries.”
Rosethorn continued, “We know the Stonecarvers care little about the savage nature of the Jesters this season, Dwarves being little less savage than the creatures Don Eguardo insisted on hiring. But Dwarves are so easy to convince there is some insult to them in anything … I am quite certain we can persuade them the league insulted their kind by refusing that even one single Dwarf should make the team and recruiting only their bitter enemies, the heretical Havoc Dwarves instead.
“So you see,” Rosethorn continued, “with your support we would have half the governors in favour of our petition, which arises out of pure concern for the well-being of your players.”
Thordwall gave a cold smile. “How kind of you. I will gladly seek my due seat on the Board of Governors, but the Militantes would have to finish fourth to face the Jesters again. I would need … further convincing … of your argument to support it around that table.”
Rosethorn and the duke exchanged a glance before Tancred said, “Thou must either have no faith that thy players canst make the play-offs, or great faith they canst finish higher than fourth. Take heed! The reigning champions, the infernal Skitteringi, have already won their first two games, as have the Quarrels. Mine own team, after an initial setback against the team of dear Pierce, rebounded with a win and I am confident our season is now set to unfold successfully. I believe our two teams, Pierce’s and mine own, willeth compete for first place with the Skitteringi at the bitter end of the season. Dost thou think to displace one of us and capture third? If so, thou hast great ambitions.”
Thordwall smiled again. “You don’t believe we can crack the top three? Yes, the Skitteringi are the defending champions but how did they do defending our league’s honour in the Twin Seas Super Cup?” She held up a hand to forestall the answer. “There’s no need to tell me; I was there. They bowed out in the semi-finals. No team from the Sommer Seas Football League has won that tournament of champions, has it?”
Duc Tancred frowned. Pierce Rosethorn shook his head.
Thordwall looked at Neuvil and hardened her voice. “You doubt the Militantes can finish in the top three? Well, I guarantee it. None of the other teams have a coach who guided their teams to a Super Cup championship. I do.”
Thordwall glanced up at Umberto and nodded. His comment interrupted her thinking about how the audience had broken up. Rosethorn had crossed to Neuvil and asked after Jacyntha’s health after her fight against la plaga roja. She had overheard Neuvil reply, saying, “You once swore an oath to me to heal one of my players when the time came. You upheld your oath. She is fine … though she remains a rookie.”
Rosethorn had given one of his flawless smiles and said, “I am an Elf of my word. Always. There is a remedy for the affliction of rookie-ness as well, my vinr,” honouring Neuvil by using the Nordman term for friend. “But you won’t like it. If I recall, its recipe is defeat after defeat, with the occasional tie game thrown in, with a faint touch of victory. Mix for an entire year, and voilà! The cure.” But then the Sylvan had asked her coach about his own health, looking all concerned but not appearing to refer to Neuvil’s knee.
Back in the here-and-now, she answered Umberto. “You’re right. They could have come to me prior to our match against the Jesters but only found the time now, after they defeated us and beat us up. Now, I admit that prick Rosethorn’s likely right when he says the Havoc Warriors can’t hit his players, but he didn’t mention Nytmir Curseweaver, did he? I’ll bet he’s not so cock-sure about the Quarrels standing up to her and her Dark Elf brethren. I do believe that Duc Tancred doesn’t care about his peasants, though.”
Umberto nodded. He took out a folded up broadsheet and handed it to her. “We’ve fallen to sixth. If the play-offs began today, the Imperials would play in the wild card game against the Jesters, with the Quarrels waiting to face the winner.”
“But the play-offs don’t begin today,” Thordwall said. She unfolded the broadsheet and looked at the Sommer Sea Football League standings. She felt her anger rise at seeing the Wharf Rats one position above her team on touchdown difference. “I think we need to teach Don Eguardo another lesson about messing with the Militantes,” she said. “Give some thought to how we can do that without landing me in gaol again.”
Umberto pursed his lips. “Why don’t you get your brother to go back to harrying Giamucci’s shipping?”
“Because it’s not just Pierce Rosethorn who holds to his word! I made a promise,” she said. “As much as I hate the fucker, he upheld his end of the bargain: we’re in the league. So I’ll uphold my end.” Then she added, “Well, maybe we’re not fully in the league … I will demand that seat on the Board of Governors. No more delays.
“You don’t need to worry about me this afternoon, Umberto; I’ll stay in and work on my petition to take up the Militantes’ seat. So here’s your task for today; find out if someone’s pushing rat-root to Neuvil.”
Umberto looked up, surprised.
She shrugged. “It’s just a hunch. He’s acting strangely. And Rosethorn was a bit too solicitous asking after his health today. Just look into it. If my worst fears are confirmed … well … let’s just say that if it’s a petty criminal, get rid of them. If it’s someone linked to a guild, we’ll talk about what to do.”
Umberto nodded. “Will do, boss.”
“What did you find out about Jacyntha?”
Her bodyguard shrugged. “The players all went mum; they won’t say a thing. But don’t worry, boss, I’m on it. I’m waiting for word out of my guy in Sika-Sika. If she’s really a princess, we’ll soon know.”
Umberto went about his business, leaving Thordwall pondering Neuvil’s last words to her. “When your brother sails back again,” he had said before storming off, “we shall need him to return to Gecko Bay and recruit more Xonyxas; we cannot carry on with just one sub. And if you want to preserve the players you already do have, you shall have to dip into your booty to get us a physician.”
She hated to admit it, but he was right. The team needed more investment.