The Story So Far
Mytilan Militantes’ captain Jacyntha enjoys dinner with fellow team captain of the Gloriana Quarrels, Pierce Rosethorn. To her great astonishment, she learns that footy was reformed a century earlier so as to reduce warfare between races and cultures through a treaty called the “Pact of Peace through Sport”. She also learns that the architect of the reforms was no other than her dinner partner. Rosethorn also informs her that he is well aware of who her mother is.
Militantes’s coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, gets an after-hours visit from arch-nemesis and league Officer for Conduct Rennigan Slythe. The purported reason for the visit is to gloat whilst Neuvil learns that a witness has stepped forward linking team owner Cassandra Thordwall to the sacking of the villa of rival team owner, Eguardo Giamucci. Neuvil isn’t deceived; he knows the real reason Slythe visited was to drop a packet of rat-root onto Neuvil’s table.
Too Good. IT’s GOING TOO GOOD.
The thought went through Cassandra Thordwall’s mind as she watched her team go through their warm-up.
In her experience, a sure sign of impending disaster was when things were going too good. A month had gone by since the disastrous outing against the Jesters and things had turned for the better: the Militantes had defeated the defending champions three – one; her coach appeared to be keeping away from rat-root and drink; and, practice sessions had been business-like … or at least she hadn’t had to use her whip to break up squad in-fighting again.
Today her Xonyxas faced a new challenge: Dwarves. The Stonecarvers had beaten the Militantes in the pre-season, but as her team had demonstrated against the ’Ringi, that counted for nothing in the regular-season.
The Sanger was filling up and the fans of both the Militantes and the Stonecarver were cheering every practice pass. “Got an ‘up-and-under’ or something else ready?”
Beside her, Karsgaard Neuvil cast her a sardonic glance. “I worked on your team’s chanting.”
Thordwall was surprised enough to turn her gaze to the big man. “What the hells does that mean?”
“A coach must know the opposition’s weaknesses and exploit them,” he said. “With Dwarves, their greatest strength is their biggest weakness: pride. So, we spent a lot of time working on chanting these past two weeks.”
“I don’t get it,” she said.
Suddenly the Eztadio de Sanger erupted in a chorus of boos as the referee and the other match officials emerged from the tunnel. Their appearance brought an end to the warm-ups and prevented Neuvil from elaborating on his bizarre statement. He did ask, “Umberto delivered the pouch?”
“Two of them,” she said. He nodded and then went off to round up the players for the final team talk. Umberto fell in beside her as she climbed through the bowels of the stadium to get to her owner’s viewing box. “What’d you learn?” Thordwall asked her bodyguard.
“Slythe visited Neuvil three nights back at the cottage,” he said, referring to the groundskeeper’s modest home at the Militantes’ practice pitch. “Don’t know what they talked about or whether any rat-root was involved.”
Thordwall nodded. “Neuvil told me about the visit. Slythe supposedly told him that accursed Inquestor had a witness linking me to the Giamucci villa sacking.”
“Want me to take care of ’em, Boss?”
“There’s no one to take care of. Slythe’s lying. No one saw us. It was just an excuse to push his drug on our coach. Watch Neuvil closely.”
“I’m watching you closely, Boss,” Umberto said. “I’ll get people to watch Neuvil.”
The steward guarding the entrance to the owner’s box bowed and said, “You have a guest, mistress.”
Umberto pushed past Thordwall, pulled out his dagger, and entered the room. The usual butler was there; in fact, he was passing a goblet of wine to a short, balding man overlooking the preparations on the pitch. The “guest” took the goblet in his twisted, arthritic hands and cast an impish look at Umberto. After the bodyguard had assured himself that no assassin lay in wait, he stepped aside and let Thordwall into the space.
“Eguardo,” she said, “what a surprise to see the owner of the Wharf Rats in my box. Help yourself to some wine.”
Giamucci glanced around the room. “Ha! It’s not your box, it’s the league’s. You only get to use it when your team’s on the pitch.”
She crossed to the balcony and swept her arm to show her Xonyxas getting into kick-off formation. “Well, look who’s on the pitch! My Militantes, it seems. Thus, my box, Eguardo.” She turned to the butler, “Whatever he’s drunk is a cost to the Wharf Rats.” The man nodded.
“Aw, come on, Thordwall. My team plays later. You can stick around and eat some massa. My chef does it up like nobody can. Well worth a goblet of wine or three.”
She glanced at the butler, who nodded gracefully and gestured towards an earthen clay casserole perched on a bracket above a burning dish of oil. Steam escaped from underneath its lid and the scent reaching her nose triggered a rumble from her stomach. She nodded to the butler. She had hardly settled into an elegant armchair overlooking the pitch when the man offered her a goblet. “Why are you here, Eguardo?”
Giamucci gave her a crooked smile but otherwise ignored her question. “What cheating have you got planned for today? Any more vipers like you used on us?”
She shrugged. “Neuvil said something about chanting. Now tell me, what do you want?”
He continued ignoring her barbed questions and picked up on what she reported Neuvil having said. “Chanting? That man’s bizzarro, you know that? Bizzaro. Just like a regular Nordman. Chanting!” He shook his head. Then he said, “Look. My team’s having a rough season. I thought you might be able to help.” He flopped down onto the armchair beside her. “One of those ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ things. Grazie. Make sure the massa doesn’t burn or stick, okay.” This last was said to the butler who had presented Giamucci with a bowl of pasta. She took note for the first time of his knobby, arthritic hands with fingers bent in on themselves. He fumbled the dish but regained control before it tipped its contents onto his lap.
“I didn’t know my back needed scratching,” she said.
“Aw, c’mon Thordwall,” Giamucci said. “Hear me out.”
So she heard him out and pondered his proposal as the game got underway. Then she said, “Why don’t you do it?”
“Because I don’t have no ships due back that could get him out of town. I can’t keep him in my warehouse or at home. No, no, no. That wouldn’t work at all. They’d be searched and that’d be that. Whereas I’m quite sure the famous Pillaging Peggy has a ship standing offshore hereabouts what could spirit him away no problem at all.”
“And what’s in it for the Militantes?”
“A duke’s ransom could bribe a lot of refs. When you get to Halos, my network there can put you in touch with the right people.” He leaned into her. “You once said you knew someone who could arrange the magnitude of victories. It’d be the perfect time for you to pay that debt what got you into the league. I’d want the Duskdaggers to beat the Jesters.”
She considered his offer as she watched the Stonecarvers receive the ball and, predictably, form a cage around the ball-carrier. “It’d have to be after our next game, against the Quarrels. The night before we set sail for our games in Halos.”
Giamucci shrugged. “No problem! The timing’s perfect! That’ll be just before I need ’em shaken up. Right bang before the Martí Derby.”
She nodded. Each season there was one big, big game, called the “Martí Derby” because it pitted the two Guayamartí teams against each other. In four weeks’ time, the Wharf Rats would play the Imperials, shutting the entire city down.
“What’re they chanting? Is that Dwarfish?” Giamucci asked.
Indeed, her Xonyxas seemed to be chanting in Dwarfish. She leaned forward in her armchair. Giamucci distracted her from what was going on down below by declaring, “Listen, it’ll take us a couple of weeks to pull everything together anyways.”
He took up his bowl of pasta and speared another forkful of massa, rolling it around and around the fork. She saw his knobby hands made the act difficult for him, but he finally managed to get a wad of noodles entwined around the tines and he shovelled it into his mouth. He took his time eating it and then washed it down with another swig of wine. “Look, think about it between now and your Quarrels game. Don’t talk to that coach of yours, though. Nor your minder there neither, not until you need to make your plan. A secret shared by four ain’t no secret. Got it?”
He drained his goblet of wine and got to his feet. Then he pulled a macaw feather out from under his tunic, laying it overtop the empty goblet. “I think you know where to find me.”
He exited the box, leaving Thordwall to her thoughts.
“Graz’k u laganath
Pank zna kars
Firith krinder na’agaz
Kar’k zna kars!”
A Dwarf runner, bubbling with rage, bolted from the line and lunged at Belyna. His mail-clad fist found only air as the Militantes’ striker leaned away from the blow. Jacyntha grabbed the runner’s fist and tugged. The Dwarf, already leaning into the blow, toppled forward. The Xonyxas pounced. Cuxi-Mikay pinned the runner’s right arm, Ellpay the left, and Anahuark stomped down on his helmet, cutting off the dwarf’s roaring.
“Keep chanting!” Coach Karsgaard yelled from the sidelines, while, from the other side of the pitch a deep angry bellow of “Arbiter! Foul!” sounded.
“Gdor bydor zek
Ya gosga kerez spek
Yay, zay, napok zera
Tago va maznot ta!”
Upon seeing his kinsman so ill-used, another Dwarf, already enraged, barrelled forth, knocking away the grasping hand of his captain that reached out to restrain him. It was one of those lesser-armoured berserkers, Dwarves already perched at the very edge of insanity who submerged themselves fully in the bloodlust of battle. The lack of armour made him quick, presenting a different sort of danger than his brethren. Spilling spittle from the corners of his screaming mouth, he came surging forward. He didn’t bother with a measured block or punch that would keep him on his feet; instead, he threw himself at Anahuark, the fouler.
Anahuark dodged clear and the Dwarf laughed as he grabbed her pony-tail and pulled her off her feet. They crashed to the pitch together, but he had hurled himself into the centre of the knot of Xonyxas, and the women, screened by Belyna, attacked. Jacyntha herself committed this next foul, kicking the crazed player in the biceps and leaving him in a crumpled ball of agony.
“Arbiter! A heinous breach!” the Stonecarver coach yelled. Then, “Neuvil! There is no honour in this!”
“Keep chanting!” was the only response from across the pitch.
“Graz’k u Dûm
Magoiz ib kanth”
“Kazar n’Kath!” the Stonecarver captain screamed and Jacyntha recognized the words that Coach Karsgaard had said she might hear. Hold formation! It was confirmation that the Militantes’ tactics were working. The usual dwarf game plan was to make a tight cage and advance slowly, beating up the opposition along the way before scoring at the end of the half. They might well have expected the Militantes to stand just off their forward line fending off attacks, which her sisters had done, but they clearly hadn’t reckoned on being coaxed out of their formation one by one by bad chanting.
“Doldugur o’ N’Kool
Kar’k pol baglor!”
Jacyntha didn’t know enough Dwarfspeak to know what she and her sisters were singing, but over two weeks of training, they had learnt the song well enough for Coach Karsgaard to declare himself satisfied. In the here-and-now, the chanting was working. Three enraged Stonecarvers had been lured into the heart of the defence where they could be swarmed and sent to the infirmary. Only Jacyntha’s good friend Ocllo had found herself in the care of the Militantes’ new apothecary, so they now had an advantage in numbers; eight against ten.
Or perhaps eight against eleven: that ref doesn’t seem too impartial!
Jacyntha’s job wasn’t to worry about whether the ref had been bribed, it was – presently – to sing bastardized Dwarfish war chants.
Two blockers lunged forward together this time, though the heart of the cage held firm as it advanced – too slowly – down the field. It was difficult keeping up the chanting while dealing with the threat, but the swarming Xonyxas kept the song droning on as they put one out of action and the other down on his face.
The ball-carrier and his cage had hardly penetrated the Militantes’ side of the pitch. The half was drawing to an end and the Stonecarver captain must have known it because he broke formation to step forward and scream, “You desecrate our most holy hymn!”
“Gdor bydor zek”
The Dwarf yelled, “Have you no honour?”
“Ya gosga kerez spek”
Then he yelled, “We do not surrender to goblins! And we don’t shit cheese!”
He flung himself forward in a foaming rage. Cuxi-Mikay swam through the attack and slipped next to the ball-carrier. Belyna guarded her flank as Cux stripped the ball loose. It bounced off the helmet of a Stonecarver blocker and came towards the defenders.
Jacyntha pounced, snatched the ball out of the air, and suddenly the defenders became attackers. She threw a perfect spiral cross-field to Ellpay, who brought in the ball and took off. Again fortune, or perhaps the ref’s pre-game fortune in bribes, worked in their favour, for Ell had just enough time to cross the goal line before the whistle put an end to the first half.
The whistle didn’t put an end to the violence, however. The Xonyxas stopped playing and walked towards their bench, but the Dwarves burst forth, each one attacking an unsuspecting Xonyxa. But there were only seven attackers; the match officials, the Stonecarver coach, and the unengaged Xonyxas freed their sisters and the worst injury suffered was a bloody nose. By the time the enraged Stonecarvers had been calmed down and reached their bench, three of them, including the captain, had received red cards. The second half started with seven dwarves on the pitch and kicking off. The women controlled the rest of the game and won 2-0.
After the final whistle, when the opposing coach refused to clasp his adversary’s hand, Jacyntha spotted a well-contented Coach Karsgaard toss away a small paper packet. That curiosity was soon forgotten upon receiving not only another flower from Pierce Rosethorn for her dominant performance on the pitch but also an invitation from him to dine at an exclusive restaurant across the Ponte Regale on the Isle of Ísquita.
She felt butterflies in her stomach and her heart skipped a beat before running amok.