The Story So Far
The game against the Duskdaggers in their home stadium, Eztadio Matadoras, goes awry; a Dark Elf has brought a dagger onto the field of play and stabs team captain Ocllo in the gut. In revenge, Qispi triggers a bench-clearing brawl during which a second armed Dark Elf slices open Anahuark‘s arm. In the aftermath of the fight, Jacyntha and Ellpay get hauled off to the stadium dungeon.
In sorting out the penalties before restarting the game, the referee denies having seen any weapons, which he and his match officials are supposed to keep away from the pitch. In the end, he hands out three red cards to the Militantes, one more than the two he brandishes to the Duskdaggers. Feeling aggrieved, Militantes’ coach Karsgaard Neuvil discusses the implications of breaking the “Pact of Peace through Sport” with the league’s local Officer for Conduct. The talk does no good … the Militantes must fight on down in numbers. At half time the score is tied 1-1 but the Xonyxas lose heart when they learn that their captain, Ocllo, has died. Dispirited and lacking the bench strength to field a full team, the Militantes lose 2 – 1.
“After the cataclysm, the all was war.”
“Xonyx the Strong rose to become 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 led her folk to victory after victory. And in so doing, she brought to her bosom the refugees, the lost, the enslaved. She forged a queendom out of the Jungle of the Night Cats, what some now call the N’Itgat Jungle, and she gave her folk her name, making the Xonyxas, a people strong and resilient.
“The army she led thwarted the Exotherms,” Jacyntha continued, reading from the scriptures, “put to flight the warbands of Havoc Warriors and their trained Goatyrs, and cast back the incursions of menkind.” She looked up from the holy text and glanced at her sisters gathered around. She finally found the strength to say, “And in the battles, many fell.”
“And many were the martyrs,” the congregation answered. Only Mistress Thordwall, Coach Karsgaard, and Umberto did not speak, neither recognizing the invocation nor knowing the words of the reply.
“And their blood became to Mytilan as a seed that was sown,” Jacyntha chanted.
“And we are the shoot that grew from the seed.”
“And every generation casts the seeds of the seed.”
“And their blood is the seed that makes us grow.”
“And the seeds shall never be forgotten.”
“Not even unto the day Xonyx returns.”
“So it is,” Jacyntha brought an end to the liturgy, closing the tome from which she read and setting it in her lap.
The Militantes sat cross-legged in an arc in front of her. They were in a nondescript building of solid Dwarven construction that served as a holy house for all the cultures enclosed at night in Halos’ Foreigners’ Quarter. She nodded and the women stood, Karolyse going off to gather up Chico, who had slithered to a hot-air vent in the floor by the far wall, prompting Coach Karsgaard to skulk off to the opposite wall. They hugged and comforted each other. Coach Karsgaard waited until Chico had been safely returned to his basket before comforting anyone.
They filed out of the temple and returned to the inn that would serve as their home for the next few weeks. Jacyntha clutched the loop of silver hair in her fist and thought about how they would endure the long wait before the next match; back, before the season had begun, the nebulous process of fixing the schedule had determined that the Militantes’ by-week should be spent here in Halos, slotted in between games against the Duskdaggers and the Mongrels, the league’s team of Orcs and Goblins. With all that had happened, Jacyntha wanted to get back on the pitch as soon as possible, but the Militantes had to wait nearly four weeks.
The delay meant she would have too much time to think, to brood on the loss of her best friend, to blame herself for having failed to prevent the death. Those thoughts made her stomach churn. She would especially have lots of time to think on the last words she had said in private to Ocllo.
“How could you let him?”
It was an accusation she had levelled at her friend, an unfair one, for having accepted an invitation of Pierce Rosethorn to dine, not knowing Jacyntha had initiated a romance with the Sylvan. Jacyntha’s words had been cruel and unjust and she couldn’t take them back. Not now, not ever.
But Pierce Rosethorn had known what he was doing. He had known exactly what he was doing. Undermining guileless half-wits, pitting them against each other, eroding the cohesiveness that a footy team required.
Jacyntha might be the most guileless half-wit of them all but she swore on the Temple of the Viper that she would revenge herself upon Pierce Rosethorn.
She clutched at the loop of witch hair and cursed Duskdaggers, Quarrels, Mongrels, and everyone else standing between her and her future.
Which meant, of course, she also cursed herself.
“They’re weak and you’re the one who’s made them weak!”
Cassandra Thordwall had demanded and received the inn’s dining room to use as an office during the Militantes’ stay in Halos. She stood in the centre of the room, tapping her foot and twitching her coiled whip. Her employee, Coach Karsgaard Neuvil, stood before her, his face inscrutable, his demeanour either completely calm or utterly resigned … Thordwall couldn’t decide which.
“I told you I expected my team to compete for championships on a regular basis,” she raged. “I as good as swore an oath to Rosethorn and that double-crossing cretin Duc Tancred that you, the famous Karsgaard Neuvil who had won the Twin Seas Super Cup, would have us finish higher than fourth! Well, we’ve dropped two games in a row now and I don’t see the team making the play-offs at all, never mind top three!” Umberto, sitting on a stool in the corner by the door, looked up from his broadsheet with the Sommer Sea Football League standings and nodded gravely.
“And it’s all because you’ve made them weak!”
Neuvil said nothing, made no movement, did not change the neutral expression on his face.
“We blew a lead! At one-nil all we had to do was keep them penned in until half-time! You can’t do that with eight players on the pitch! Those self-indulgent princesses couldn’t keep their cool and handed the game away on a coral platter!” She raised the coil and thrust it towards Neuvil. “You! You could have beaten their self-centred notions of grandeur out of their thick noggins but you didn’t!”
Neuvil’s eyes did shift from her own to the coil of leather.
Seeing the reaction, she thrust the coil at him again. “At half-time we were still tied! There was no reason to collapse! Oh … my mistake! There was! They collapsed because they’re weak! And you’re the one who’s made them weak!”
That last accusation came out at a bellow. Still dealing with Neuvil’s icy gaze, and panting from her exertions, Thordwall spun and stomped to the table that dominated the far side of the room, the side with the windows giving onto Halos’ harbour. She placed her hands on the table’s ebony surface and stared off towards the horizon, where sea and haze melted into each other. The weather was turning. The sun was dropping beneath the horizon these past few days. Autumn, and rough seas, was upon them.
“Well? What have you got to say for yourself?”
Neuvil said, “Umberto, would you kindly give us some privacy?”
She spun around. “Umberto stays! What you say to me, you say to him.”
Umberto had looked up from his broadsheet again, his handsome features troubled. “I won’t leave the boss alone. Not in Halos.”
Neuvil turned to her bodyguard, his first movement since arriving for their meeting. “That choice is yours, though you should know that in the Foreigners’ Quarter we are safe enough. It has its own wall and employs its own Dwarven guards. So the choice in front of you is whether you serve here in this room now as bodyguard or Thane of Player Personnel. The bodyguard listens to Mistress Thordwall and stays, the thane listens to the head coach and leaves. And you will recall I stripped Jacyntha of the captaincy because she did not listen to me, so your duties as thane end if you stay.”
Thordwall couldn’t tolerate that. “Don’t pull this power bullshit with me, Neuvil! Umberto stays.”
Neuvil ignored her and said to her bodyguard, “Thane de la Calle, I know you love this sport … by the thirteen sweet hells, you cannot keep your eyes off the standings. Listen to me now, Mistress Thordwall is safe. Dwarrig has his people ringing the inn, inside are fourteen angry Xonyxas, and this conversation has nothing to do with player personnel. Do not throw away this job you love.”
Umberto’s glance bounced between herself and Neuvil before he got up, crossed the room, and set the broadsheet on the table. Then he turned and crossed back to the door. Neuvil patted him on the shoulder as he passed and said, “Do me a favour and make sure no one is listening in, will you?”
Umberto nodded and left the room.
Thordwall glanced at the standings printed on the broadsheet. They showed her Militantes on seven points in sixth position, two points behind all three of the Duskdaggers, Skitteringi, and Imperials. Her team’s next opponents, the Mongrels, were in second place on ten points. They needed to get into the top half to make the play-offs; they needed to get above fourth to avoid playing the Jesters again in the wild-card match.
Letting sarcasm drip from her tongue, she asked, “Did you enjoy undermining my authority? You should know, anyone who pulls off a stunt like that gets fired quickly. What are your last words to me?”
Neuvil limped over to where Umberto had been sitting, grabbed the stool and took it over to the table before flopping down onto it. He massaged his knee with his hand.
They’re shaking. His hands are shaking.
“Please, Cassandra,” he said, “sit down and listen before you decide to fire me. I would also take it as a sign of respect if you were to set aside your whip. It makes talking about how to move forward more adversarial than I would like … assuming you don’t fire me after what I say.”
She threw the whip across the room to clatter against an absurd portrait of a tricorn-wearing carrot with a sea battle in the background.
He took a deep breath. “All that you have said is correct. I will not deny it. Our lasses are wonderful physical specimens but they have not all developed up here.” He tapped his temple with his right forefinger. “They must overcome adversity but they are all still so young. It made me think on how you found them, this convenient collection of Queensguard cast-offs.
“We are not going to win the championship this year, Cassandra. It would require us running the table … two wins to grab fourth, defeating the Jesters in the wild-card match, then beating probably both the Quarrels and the Imperials in the semi-final and the final. A five-game winning run like that … I will not say ‘impossible’ because, in footy, anything is possible. But such a thing has never happened. We must accept that it will not happen now.”
“No! We don’t accept defeat! Ever! That’s what I mean about being weak!”
Neuvil nodded and a placating hand waved her back into her seat. “Yes, yes. Of course … anything is possible in footy. So I said. But why did you never run up your Rotten Roger pirate flag and sail into Hithilgalán?”
Thordwall threw up her arms. “What? Hithilgalán? They don’t call their footy team the Sea Lords because they bake biscuits, that’s why. Royal Freaking Navy! Ships of the line everywhere. What’s gotten into you?”
“Is that not weak? Accepting defeat before you give battle? I thought you never accepted defeat?”
“Don’t play tricks with me! It’s not the same and you know it. If the rules of a sport limited the battle to one High Elf ship of the line against the Menace …”
“You would run away.”
She kept silent, pondering his interruption. She finally nodded.
“So you see, lifting the trophy in two months’ time is not going to happen. Laying the foundation to lift it next year, well that is another proposition. And let me address something else; no, I do not enjoy undermining your authority. There is no question of authority here … you have it. I do not. You fire me and my return to the sport is over. But if you do not fire me, your authority remains … indeed, we shall need it more now than ever before.”
She cocked her head. “What? Why?”
“We need your consortium to flex its muscle … and … you need to tell me the truth behind it because I realized something today.”
She ignored his comments about the consortium and truth, “What did you realize?”
“I realized,” he answered, “that it all comes down to the Pact of Peace through Sport. It has taken me my entire playing career and now my coaching career to finally see footy for what it truly is. At last I realize that teams do not contest footy matches. Not really. Nations do. The threat to peace that comes from subverting a team, well now, that is because there is a threat that whole nations might get enraged and cast aside the Pact. So we need your consortium now or we shall keep getting the pitch pulled out from under us. We need to threaten the Pact.”
He turned his icy gaze on her, looking her directly in the eyes. “You said you were not the sole owner of the club we were to form, so now is the time to reach out to your silent partners.
“Something tells me they have a navy.”