The Story So Far
Cassandra Thordwall has a bitter argument with her coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, that threatens to rupture their relationship. Thordwall admits she didn’t spend anything on bribes or fan inducements prior to the disastrous loss to the Jesters. Thordwall pushes Neuvil to admit he’s taking rat-root again but he denies it. She nevertheless warns him the drug can kill. Umberto interrupts at a key moment to say Pierce Rosethorn of the Quarrels and Duc Tancred of the Imperials want a meeting. These two say the league must integrate Thordwall onto its Board of Governors and they tell her they’ll support her petition to join … providing she agrees to reform the Jesters, the team that just crushed the Militantes. When Thordwall responds that their proposal would only benefit the rest of the league, Rosethorn and Tancred note the Militantes risk facing the Jesters in the play-offs. She guarantees her team will crack the top three; they have a remarkable coach, after all.
After the meeting and alone with Umberto, Thordwall asks him to find out if someone is pushing rat-root to Neuvil and she learns her bodyguard’s contacts have yet to confirm whether Jacyntha is a Xonyxa princess. Thordwall then reflects upon whether her team needs further investment.
“After the cataclysm, the all was war.”
“Within lands as much as between them, armed conflict raged and the only thing that spread quicker than war was suffering. The twisted races were born, each one more savage than the last and ever more keen to impale the other on the ends of their spears. And spears were now common because the secrets of the Age that Came Before were forgotten. Some lucky few survived and banded together to establish new cities and lands, but even these were apt to fall into war between sister and brother.
“And yet, out of the mire rose Xonyx the Strong,” Jacyntha continued, “a fine general and an inspiring leader. She outwitted her enemies and provided succour to those who sought her protection. From the ancient fires she forged the sword that could fell trees with a single stroke: the Edge of Hope. She first put her people to building the Temple of the Viper, knowing that enemies would ever come like the storms that shook the jungle every year. And once the Temple rose above the canopy, she then put her people to building the Temple of the Jaguar, knowing that the greatest affliction, the one that had visited chaos upon all lands since the Fire in the Sky, the one curse of all peoples, was internecine in-fighting.
“Only when the two temples stood defiant against the Havoc did Xonyx the Strong take up the Edge of Hope and use it to carve a queendom out of the Jungle of the Night Cats, what some now call the N’Itgat Jungle. She defeated those who would tear down what the Xonyxas had built, thwarting the Exotherms, putting the packs of Havoc Warriors and their trained Goatyrs to flight, resisting the incursions of menkind who would subject us to bondage. And when she grew old and her daughters had come of age as warriors and leaders in their own right, Xonyx the Strong took the hand of her daughter Magrit the Wise and raised her to Xonyx’s own throne in the Temple of the Jaguar and set a tiara on her daughter’s brow, and set the Edge of Hope at Magrit’s feet. Then, bowing once she took her leave, walking alone into the jungle, never to be seen again.”
Silence fell on the gathering, bowed heads contemplating the supreme sacrifice Xonyx the Strong had made so her people could prosper. Jacyntha nodded and Ocllo gathered up Chico and returned him to his basket. Once the viper was safely stowed, the worship came to a formal end and the others snuffed out the candles they had lit.
“For how long do you think Xonyx lived after she walked into the jungle?” Ellpay asked of no one in particular.
Pillcu had been promised to the Temple of the Jaguar before deciding she wanted to test her mettle on the football pitch and thus she knew a great many of the legends, not only of those that came just After the Cataclysm but those that came later as well, those which established the Norms. She said, “No one really knows but there is one ancient scroll that claims someone saw her sitting upon a stone in the middle of the T’zixa’Nija River. When the witness asked Xonyx if she would return to Mytilan, Xonyx supposedly replied that it wasn’t yet her time. Then she rose and dove into the water and the witness, though she looked all down the watercourse, never saw the Xonyx breach the surface.”
Ellpay took up Chico’s basket and, looking at it and no doubt remembering the play that had secured their draw against the Wharf Rats, she asked, “Do we have a chance in the next game?”
“Don’t!” Belyna snapped. “We don’t think like that!”
“She who is uncertain of victory is certain to lose,” Jacyntha quoted.
Pillcu chuckled. “We know all the texts … well, I do … but the question is whether Mistress Thordwall knows them.” Then she quoted, “She who is unprepared is uncertain.”
“Coach Karsgaard knows what we need to do,” Ellpay said. Despite his rough looks, skewed nose, and strange behaviour over the past two weeks, Jacyntha suspected that Ellpay had fallen for the grizzled Nordman. That thought made her glance first to Anahuark, and then at Karolyse and Cuxi-Mikay; none of them were yet on speaking terms with the other two. Cuxi-Mikay was still broken-hearted over Anahuark taking up with a local boy despite their having been together, Anahuark was still furious at Karolyse for having stolen the boy away, and Karolyse was still indignant at having been brutally attacked and injured.
They filed out of the temple they used in the Barrio and nearly bumped right into their coach. “Ah! I thought you would all be here,” he said. “I have a surprise for you.” He grinned and looked alert, almost looking like the man they had first met on the shores of Gecko Bay three months earlier.
Of course it was the infatuated Ellpay who reacted first. “What is it?” she squeaked more than spoke.
Coach Karsgaard turned around and whistled down the avenue. A pair of those carriages they called mateos came rolling up. To a great whoop from Ocllo, four Xonyxas sprang from the carriages and rushed forward to embrace their brethren.
Jacyntha cocked her head at Coach Karsgaard. He smiled. “You said it yourself to Mistress Thordwall. We needed more players. Oh, and a healer who knows how to treat brave but inexperienced Queensguard hopefuls.”
Jacyntha couldn’t help but hug the big man. Then she said, “I hold no more hopes of joining the ranks of the Queensguard, but perhaps of winning the league.”
“That’s my girl! … ah woman! … lady? … captain! That’s my captain!
“We’re gonna get kill’t?”
“No we ain’t!” retorted Hansi, casting Nykal a sour look. It was easy for him to be so cock-sure; he had been to the Eztadio de Sanger dozens of times. He was also a big lad.
In contrast, Nykal hadn’t been to the Sanger before: there’d never been coin enough for that, though he had always enjoyed the festival atmosphere of match-day. Then a strange illness had gone around the docks and three of Hansi’s fellow stevedores had died of the plaga roja. Nykal didn’t wish ill on anybody but that didn’t stop him petitioning for one of the jobs. He’d been picked and, just yesterday, got his first pay. After the boss took his cut, it didn’t leave much to compensate for the aching back that came with lugging sacks of grain out of the bellies of ships but it was enough for entrance to the Cemetery of Dreams.
As they climbed up from the Barrio towards the colossal, bending curve of the stadium draped with fluttering banners, more and more fellow supporters joined the stream of fans. By the time they passed under the Sea Gate and arrived at Avenida Marman, the stream had become a flood. Already the energy was building and people proceeded up the hill in a hopping, clapping, chanting mass. Hansi grinned and took up a chant going around:
“Blood and treasure! Blood and treasure! We like it all in equal measure.
Try and stop us! Try and stop us! We bully you in heightened pleasure!”
Hansi’s fists pounded the air in time with the beat; and he was not alone in doing so.
“What about those rat things?” Nykal asked his cousin after the song was complete.
“What about ’em?” Hansi replied.
“Where is they?”
“Them thing’s dangerous, so they get ’em penned into their enclosures before us honest folk get there.”
“They’re not gonna put us in with those poxy things, are they?”
“No, no, the Rodentiens have their own pens. Don’t worry ’bout that.”
“But we’re cheering for their team, right?”
“Damn straight! We’re the champions! We’re gonna slice up those upstart Militantes.”
Nykal said, “But the Skitteringi are pox-ridden Rodentiens and the Militantes are people.”
Hansi grinned, “They’re people in trouble is what they are. I head about the Jesters beating ’em up. That’s what you get for having a team of only women. Besides, the ’Ringi play good footy.”
Nykal might never have been to the Sanger before but he had taken in the odd pre-season game in the Eztadio Menor and he knew something about footy. He said, “I kinda like the Militantes.”
Hansi turned to him, “What part of ‘they ain’t the champions’ do you not get?” Then he added, “Look, they’re fit, well-shaped women; I kinda like ’em too. But they ain’t gonna win. And don’t go cheering for ’em: we’re in a ’Ringi section and you’ll find out quick-like what happens to folk who cheer for the wrong team.”
They rounded Rincón Kysha and entered Plaza de los Jugadores, where the flood of spectators hit the Sanger’s outer wall. There were vendors of all sorts. Some kioskeros sold hot fish takkos, others flogged kebabs of sizzling, dripping meat, yet others offered bulging water skins that likely weren’t filled with water. Walking vendors moved through the throng with their arms draped with the green scarves of the Skitteringi featuring the spewing volcano, yet others – though fewer – with blue and yellow scarves for the Militantes featuring the macaw feather with a spear as its spine.
Nykal tugged at Hansi’s tunic. “If it’s all so safe, why’s that guy got a club?”
Hansi grinned, thrusting Nykal towards the Skitteringi supporters section entrance. “I didn’t say we was safe, I said we wasn’t gonna get kill’t.”
Nykal handed over his five coppers to a woman on the inside of a cage made of solid iron and got let in the gate. He would have liked to sit in the shade of the awnings but he didn’t have the coin for that. At least I have a good wide-brimmed hat. He and Hansi squeezed between the minders who turned away anyone trying to slip past without paying. Suddenly he was inside the bowels of the stadium. There were more vendors here, selling drink and nosh, but Hansi led him around the concourse and up a ramp into the sunlight …
… and into the seething, writhing, chanting beast that was the packed banks of footy fans.