15: Our woods are perilous

The Story So Far

Mytilan Militantes’ coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, readies his team for a test against the defending champions of the Sommer Sea Football League, the Ebolicorum Skitteringi. These same Rodentiens thumped his Xonyxas in the pre-season. He reminds them to avoid the thick, entangling tail of the Uber-vermin and tells them to execute their new “up-and-under” tactic.

Nykal and Hansi, our two local stevedores, are in the Skitteringi’s supporters section and cheer as the Uber-vermin, Gnashnash Flailtail, and the rest of the team take the field. They gape as the Militantes spring a radical tactic, a high kick that hangs in the air so long the women can get underneath it. The Skitteringi, concentrating on the flight of the ball, get tackled and blocked, many getting injured on that initial play. Nykal and Hansi cheer the novel special play, get caught in a fan fight, but when a Rodentien gets knocked into their ranks, the fight is forgotten as the fans stampede to the player and pummel it.

Sylvan Elf Pierce Rosethorn visits the victors’ changing room post-match and presents Jacyntha a rose, calling her maid of the match. She compliments him on his beautiful tattoo of a honey badger. He tells her it glows in the dark and offers to show it to her sometime.


Pierce Rosethorn cut a thin slice of his food and inspected it closely, eying it on the end of his fork as though it might suddenly leap away. “I avoid eating flesh as a rule, but these eels … well, I sometimes allow myself the opportunity to discover the taste of things.” He popped the slice of garlic-slathered eel into his mouth and chewed. His thin, yellow eyebrows shot up and he nodded. “This is quite good. Would you like to try some?” Jacyntha shook her head and took a bite of her steamed bakkalao on a bed of spargo sprigs and rice.

She was enjoying the view as much as the food … and the company, surprisingly. They were perched on a lower corner of the citadel overlooking the majestic Ponte Regale, that bridged the narrows between Guayamartí’s main island and the smaller Isle of Ísquita on which stood the citadel and its tall towers. Beyond the distant Forteresa Almenara, the Sommer Sea refracted, in all its golden ferocity, the summer sun that was doing its rounds of the horizon. She so loved the golden hue that washed over everything at this time of the evening.

Rosethorn returned to his discussion topic. “But of course our woods are perilous! We have made them so. Orcs dare not set foot in our forest and there has not been a Havoc incursion in twenty years, though football might have something to do with that.”

“Our patrols are ever skirmishing with Exotherms,” Jacyntha said between mouthfuls of her fish. “But there is never an outright invasion that would put them in jeopardy of losing the Salamandres,” she said, referring to the big Exotherm footy team out of Xot’l that played in tournaments.

“Interesting to see a thing accomplish its designed purpose,” Rosethorn said. “Usually such things accomplish the precise opposite.”

She chuckled at that and asked, “What do you mean? Are you saying footy was somehow designed to reduce conflict between races and nations? Surely it’s these profitable leagues trying to maintain their flood of lucre?”

“Yes, just as I designed it, enlightened self-interest along with more than a measure of not-so-enlightened self-interest. It works a treat.”

Jacyntha leaned forward. “You?”

The Sylvan took a dainty sip of his white wine, nodding as he did so. “I’m older than I might appear, young woman, though I dare hope I remain half as fair as you.”

She furrowed her brow. “But I thought … the league is over a hundred years old!”

“Not quite. Ninety-eight.”

“And you created it?”

He beamed a smile nearly as brilliant as the summer sun. “Of course not! Footy has existed much for longer and the league had several starts and stops for a decade before Gloriana sent me to propose the Pact of Peace through Sport. It’s just that my proposals made it all fall into place. It took a lot of … lucre … as you put it, to convince the more brutal races to set aside the warring that came naturally to them. Or perhaps I should say, to co-opt their corrupt representatives. But it worked, they agreed to the Pact. Our sport went from success to success and peace prevailed. The model caught on as other leagues sprang up copying my model. And now you confirm that the Exotherms don’t invade your part of the N’Itgat Jungle, except for the odd skirmish, for fear of the Salamandres having their rights to play revoked.”

“You? … Your proposals?”

He deliberately set down his knife and fork before giving her a condescending look. “Jacyntha, most steely flower ever to bloom, I am aware the knowledge that we Sylvans live a very long time has already come to Mytilan. Your mother certainly knows … how can you not?”

She glared at him. “An eyesore is suddenly spoiling my view of the city, cliffs, and sea.”

“A pretty eyesore, I dare say.”

She shook her head. “And you don’t know who my mother is.”

Rosethorn laughed, and when he regained his composure, popped another slice of sautéed eel into his mouth and washed it down with another sip of wine. “Come now, my steely rose, of course I know who your mother is.”

“What in the foetid, putrid hells were your whores doing out there?”

Neuvil clenched his fist and gritted his teeth but he resolutely managed not to slug Rennigan Slythe. “I was wondering whether a perfume boutique had decided to open outside my door, but now I understand. What do you want, Rennigan?”

The Sommer Sea Football League Officer for Conduct crossed from the cottage doorway and plunked himself down on a stool on the far side of the table. Training had long since finished, the women were off doing what they did on a summer evening, and he had stayed behind to figure out what sums they should pay to the Assassins’ Guild, the blood-suckers who represented the league’s referees.

Slythe gave Neuvil a gold-toothed grin and said, “I’m glad you like my new scent. It’s called Lilac of the Evening. As for what I want, well, I just want to reminisce about the ol’ playing days with a dear ol’ friend.”

Neuvil looked over each shoulder before turning back to the big, bald man, “I see no friends of yours here, you had best try down in Barrio. There are some piss-shops down there that might be willing to rent a friend to such as you.”

Slythe tossed a small packet onto the table. “And I come bearing gifts! What has the world come to that I receive such a welcome.”

He prevented himself from glancing at the packet. “It has come to its senses, Rennigan, that is what.”

Slythe twirled an end of his moustache between forefinger and thumb. “So what in the putrid hells were the whores doing? Did they panic? Even you aren’t so foolish to have trained them to do anything as stupid as that kicking business.”

Neuvil snarled. “You call them whores again and I shall gut you. It worked, did it not? We took the defending champions by surprise! They were so busy looking up they did not see us closing in on them.”

Slythe grinned again. He held up two fingers and touched the tip of each one in turn with the index finger of his opposite hand. “One: gutting me is against league regulations regarding the safety of match and league officials. Two: you’re an old has-been, Karsgaard. I’d tear you to shreds if you tried gutting me.”

Drawing on every ounce of his courage, Neuvil got up and crossed over to the wicker basket sitting by the hearth. His hands hardly shook as he picked it up and set it on the table in front of Slythe. “So, Rennigan, one: I never said you would be alive when I gutted you. Two: do you know what lives in this basket?”

Slythe had backed his stool up and, gratefully, seemed chastened … gratefully because Neuvil reckoned his nemesis was right; if he started a fight with the league Officer of Conduct, he’d get beaten to a pulp.

“Why are you here?”

Slythe’s face twisted from alarm into a pout. “That stupid trick won’t work on the Stonecarvers. They’ll have seen. They’ll have gone over it on the training ground. They’re too disciplined to fall into such a stupid trap. Everybody knows the importance of ball control … except you of course; the rest of us aren’t fools.”

“You wound your filthy way through the Barrio and Dockside, crossed the Bridge of a Hundred Arches, and then risked the favela just to tell me Dwarves like to plan and practice?”

Slythe raised his nose to the ceiling and got to his feet. “All right, I’ll tell you; I came to gloat! That inquestor looking into your boss’ robbery of Don Giamucci’s villa has found a witness who’s prepared to testify before the Procurator that she saw Cassandra Thordwall on a wagon loaded with plundered loot riding away from the scene of the crime. Your Pillaging Peggy might be on the Board of Governors now, but she won’t be for long!”

“Get out Rennigan, and do not return. You are not welcome at this club’s training ground.”

Slythe slammed the cottage door as he left.

Lying bastard.

Of course he hadn’t come to give an old adversary advance warning of something as momentous as the impending outlawry of Cassandra Thordwall. He’d come to make sure his old enemy wouldn’t go short on rat root.

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