The Story So Far
After disembarking from the Menace, Jacyntha confronts her erstwhile lover, Pierce Rosethorn, captain of the Gloriana Quarrels. Trying to thrust him out of her way, he ably dodges clear and reminds her he’s said on several occasions that the moment she lays a finger on him is the moment he retires. Incensed, she snatches the bouquet of flowers he holds, stomps on them, and then throws them back at him only to learn the gift wasn’t for her but for Coach Karsgaard Neuvil. Rosethorn explains that Neuvil takes it hard when a player dies and he expresses his condolences to Jacyntha on the loss of her teammate and best friend, Ocllo. Before she storms off Rosethorn asks her whether Neuvil’s hands shake. The question unsettles Jacyntha because she knows Rosethorn is a talented apothecary and he’s obviously concerned about the health of her coach.
Duc Tancred de Baston barges through the officialdom waiting to arrest Cassandra Thordwall on Guayamartí’s wharves, stunning them all when he yells, “Dost I appear abducted?” Unable to prove an abduction when the supposed abductee denies being a victim of the crime in question, the inquestor is left with no cause to arrest Thordwall. Taking full advantage of the moment, Thordwall instructs league Officer for Conduct, Rennigan Slythe, to keep off her back and steer clear of her coach, Neuvil. Queen Beatriz throws around her weight as a fully anointed monarch, summoning the Hierarchs of Guayamartí to her flagship. During the ensuing audience, she makes it clear the full power of her state backs the Militantes and she will brook no further interference in the team’s affairs by Guayamartí’s inquestors. The stage is now set for the Militante’s last game of the season against the Imperials. The task is clear: win or go home.
“Out loud! Everyone needs to hear.”
Karsgaard Neuvil extended a quivering hand to Jacyntha, a hand that gripped a league broadsheet. She was to read out the Sommer Sea Football League standings to her teammates so that everyone might understand their situation. She unfolded the document and laid it on the table of the groundskeeper’s cottage at their training ground across the Bridge of a Hundred Arches from Guayamartí proper.
The Imperials, the Militantes’ next opponents, sat in first place on fifteen points, one point ahead of that bastard Pierce Rosethorn’s Quarrels. The Quarrels would face the fourth place Skitteringi in their last game of the season. The Rodentiens were on twelve points, only two behind the Sylvans and they could even nab first place if they won and if the Imperials slipped up. Also on twelve points were the Duskdaggers, the only team to have already completed their eight-game season. Their record should have had them tied for first on fifteen but the league had penalized them three points for violating the ban on weapons, resulting in the death of her best friend Ocllo, the then captain of the Militantes. Because they had played all their games already, the Dark Elves could do nothing more to improve their points haul. Thus, the Duskdaggers needed the two teams on ten points, the Mongrels and the Militantes, to not win. If the Mongrels did win, then they would jump above the Duskdaggers and could finish as high as third if the Quarrels beat the Skitteringi. As for her team …
“We need to win,” Jacyntha said.
“And …” Coach Karsgaard prompted.
“Even if we win, it might not be good enough. It depends on whether we can get above two of the teams ahead of us. We can’t catch the Imperials or the Quarrels. If the Skitteringi win or draw, we’ll need to finish above the Mongrels. But if they also win, we’d finish in fifth and out of the play-offs.”
“Unless we win by one more than the Mongrels do. Then we’d be even. Dead even, because the tie-breaker would be our results against the Jesters and we both lost one-nil. The final tie-breaker would be our head-to-head record, and we beat them.”
“You see how important that last game was?” Coach Karsgaard asked the players. Heads nodded. “It was not only the win against the Mongrels that was critical but also the margin of victory. You did well and I am proud of you. But it might not have been enough. Not if we do not win by a bigger margin than they do. And now, as fate would have it, we must face the first-place team in our final match. We have a difficult task in front of us.”
“We’re not daunted, Coach,” Jacyntha declared.
“No, we aren’t,” gushed Ellpay, still evidently in thrall to her feelings for their coach and doing what she could to attract his attention. “By the Viper, we can take ’em!”
Neuvil huffed. “You can, can you? Your confidence reassures me … but hard work on the training pitch will reassure me more. You are all already better players than the commoners the Imperials will field. You are as good as their squires, I think. But you will need to get better to equal their knights. Those players are quick, strong, and agile. We have ten days to make ourselves harder, sharper, faster.”
Then he gave them all a smile. Jacyntha thought it seemed forced, like the smile her officer would sometimes give her platoon when deep in the jungle on campaign against the Exotherms. Back then, in her days as a soldier aspiring to the Queensguard, she had noticed even the best officers would get weighed down by lack of sleep and the unceasing stress of worrying about elusive enemies prowling around in the dark.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked them. “Get out there and warm-up. You have work to do.”
“I don’t do favours, mate. Now bugger off.”
Karsgaard Neuvil felt the urge to punch the dealer, but instead, he clenched his teeth and limped away down the darkened alley. It was the middle of the night and although his weariness numbed his mind, his knee had kept him from sleeping. The old injury, re-aggravated at the beginning of the season by Anahuark in that inter-squad brawl, ached increasingly as the autumn weather turned ever more inclement. He pulled his cloak around him, trying to escape the driving wind and the pelting rain.
This is the sort of weather only a goose could like.
He changed direction, going down towards the strand and the Luffing Lateen. He took care to lookout for cutpurses and cutthroats; in this, at least, being a big man helped. When he reached the Maral Canal and turned to walk along it, he saw ahead the Lateen was still open, with golden lamplight spilling through its entranceway onto the glistening cobblestones. However, just as he approached, a boisterous crowd spilled out into the night, herded by owner Sam Gosling. “Away with you!” Gosling cried, shooing the revellers out his doorway. “I thank you for your custom and tomorrow there’ll someone else for you to meet, but we’re closing up and I’d thank you to go home.” Gosling returned indoors to herd out another group. His barking orders filtered out the Lateen’s shuttered windows.
Neuvil hid in the nearby inky darkness until the entranceway was cleared of lingerers. Then he dashed in. Gosling was rousing folk in the far corner. Neuvil needed time with the owner alone and thus wanted to avoid getting herded out with all the other patrons, so he shuffled over to the hearth where a high-backed throne-like chair faced the blazing fire. He could sit in the chair unseen and when Gosling was alone …
“By my spiked boots! It’s Karsgaard Neuvil!”
Alas, the chair wasn’t empty.
He re-directed to a nearby stool and sat, shaking raindrops off his cloak. He pulled back his hood and looked across the hearth to the Dark Elf lazing amongst a bank of cushions on the chair. “Hello Nytmir. The locals trust you abroad on a dark night? I would have thought they would worry about you conducting an impromptu sacrifice.”
From amongst all the cushions, Nytmir Curseweaver threw back her silver-haired head and laughed. It was a hearty thing and he knew she meant it to sound seductive.
If only it were not.
For once she wasn’t wearing anything absurdly revealing, favouring linens and wools underneath a fur cloak that looked like it had been made from wolverines. She replied, “Oh I would so enjoy that.” She somehow made the word “enjoy” last longer than all the others put together. “But you need a powerful heart to make a proper sacrifice to Nagra-Lath. If only I could find a man known for the potency of his heart! But perhaps that man has found me? Would you give me your heart?” She blew him a kiss.
“My boss recently told me the difference between the words ‘figuratively’ and ‘literally’ … I wager your interest falls on the literal side of things.”
She chuckled. “More, perhaps, my dear, but not completely. I might enjoy you giving me your heart in a figurative sense as well … for a while at least.” Then she leaned forward as though to share some secret. The neck of her tunic dropped just enough for him to catch a glimpse of her cleavage … no doubt exactly the effect Curseweaver sought. “You think I am a creature beholden to my lusts. Well, I can assure you, my dear … you’re right. I lust for life, for blood,” then she lowered her gaze and let it bore into him, “and for other things. I could show you a good time.” She drew out those last two words for far longer than was decent.
For a moment he was tempted. He finally said, “Aye, I have no doubt you could. But I know how it goes … it always ends-up a bargain, a this-for-that, you have had your fun and now here is the cost. Something tells me the cost would be high.”
She chuckled. “I never knew you were so wise, my dear. So, tell me, what brings the esteemed Karsgaard Neuvil to a drinking stew in the middle of a cold, wet night? You come here only to sit at a hearth to get hot and bothered? You’re still wet!”
“I am,” he nodded.
“And you’re shaking! Are you as cold as all that or do I put so much fear in you?”
“Aye, I shake in fear before the great witch. Are you alone, Nytmir? I cannot imagine Gosling letting Goriada in …”
“Ha! Indeed not. Nor the Centaurs. It just so happens, I am alone. Care to escort poor little feeble me home?”
Just then Gosling found them. “Master Neuvil! I didn’t see you tonight.”
“I just got here.”
“At closing time? Or are you here to settle …” Gosling paused and then flicked his eyes at Curseweaver, obviously not wanting to embarrass his famous client in front of an even more famous client by bringing up the matter of his unpaid debt with the house.
Neuvil shook his head.
Gosling directed his next words at the witch, “I thank you for coming, estimada señora. I do hope to receive Señor Estab tomorrow.”
She smiled and rose. “He wouldn’t dream of missing out on your hospitality. The Jesters thank you for your support. I enjoyed myself; I always appreciate meeting my worshippers. It truly was no … sacrifice.” With that last, she winked at Neuvil. “Come, Karsgaard. I think I know what you need. I can help you … if you’re man enough to accept assistance from me.”
Despite his misgivings, he did walk her home. And she was right, she did know what he needed and she did help him get it.
It allowed him finally to weep for Ocllo. He wept, too, for the many teammates and players he had lost over the long years since first joining the Hammarskjöld Nordhammers, then helping Iva Thorkellson coach the team, then coaching his own teams, ending with the Imperials. He wept for the dead, the maimed, the scarred.
But afterwards, with the pain having fled, he slept.