The Story So Far
Umberto briefs his boss, Cassandra Thordwall, on the results of his investigations. Jacyntha, the Militantes’ captain, went out to Queen Beatriz’ flagship before the Mytilan fleet weighed anchor and wasn’t seen returning. Thordwall guesses at what might have happened, telling Umberto that she had been present when the Queen negotiated with Duc Tancred de Baston about having Jacyntha marry deposed King Carles IV of Chivalria and joining forces to retake the throne from the usurper King. She adds she doesn’t believe they can do anything about losing their captain but asks if Umberto knows what Karsgaard Neuvil’s views are on the matter. Then she learns that Dark Elf witch, Nytmir Curseweaver, visited Rennigan Slythe, who promptly went off and seized her coach. She sets out to make life difficult for the Sommer Sea Football League.
Thordwall and Umberto arrive at a place she knows she can round up criminal muscle on short notice, Sam Gosling’s tavern, the Luffing Lateen. Once there she learns from Gosling that Neuvil had been frequenting the tavern in the company of Curseweaver. She also learns Neuvil had debts with the house, which Nytmir paid, and she’s been paying for their evenings ever since. Thordwall tells Gosling she’s going to return to the discussion in the future but says she needs immediate help. She asks him to point out his most troublesome, criminal patrons in the tavern for a quick job. With nine such heavies in her sudden employ, she unleashes an attack on the league’s offices, tearing them apart.
But she doesn’t find her coach.
“She’s gone into hiding.”
The players reacted to his news well-enough, or so Umberto thought at any rate. The Xonyxas glanced at each other and he recognized the same trepidation he had seen in the eyes of his foes many a time just before a fight started. And yet, despite whatever worry they felt, they looked ready … for what, he wasn’t sure, but whatever it was, they were ready for it.
“First our captain leaves with our Queen’s fleet to go back to Mytilan without saying goodbye, then our coach is taken prisoner by the league we play in, and now the owner of the team has gone into hiding after ransacking the league office?” Karolyse asked, clarifying the obvious.
He nodded. “I hear what you’re saying. It sounds bad. Very bad. But I’d like to point out, Mistress Thordwall is only suspected of organizing the ransacking, as you put it. The Hierarchs’ Inquestor doesn’t seem interested in pursuing an investigation … probably because of your Queen’s threat a few days ago. But forget all that. As I see it, we’ve got ourselves three things to do.
“Thing One: get ready for the Wild Card game against the Jesters … we’ve only got four more days. For that, I’ll be running you through some drills Karsgaard hasn’t shown you yet. In my days as a bodyguard, see, I picked up a lotta moves that always helped me out. So, we’re going to work on fending off opposition blockers. And tackling. I’ll also want the strikers working on supporting each other in the thick of a ruck.
“Thing Two: find Karsgaard and free him. You oughtn’t worry about that but it’s important you know it’s a thing we’re doing. I have some friends keeping an eye out for him, see. I’m sure we’ll get word of him soon.
“Thing Three: track down a Goblin called Grimmy Grimejacket. He’s been the operative for the Mongrels while they’ve been over in Halos. Word on the water is the Mongrels will make port tomorrow and I want to put an end to this complaint business, see, before then.”
Karolyse turned to her sisters. They’d obviously had time to think something through amongst themselves because there was some nodding going on between them. Ellpay looked particularly enthusiastic for whatever it was.
“You know, Umberto,” Karolyse finally said. “To make your first attempt at the Queensguard, you already have to be a warrior.”
He tried to figure out where this was going but failed. He had always preferred to let others level with him, so he reckoned he’d better do the same, so he admitted, “I don’t follow … I mean, beyond that it made you all so attractive as players to the boss.”
“What we mean is, you have a platoon of soldiers right here. And we’re good at tracking things down, and Huaco-chic’ya is good at patching people up … just in case …”
He didn’t reply for a while. “Right. That’s a very valid point. So here’s what I reckon we’d better do. It makes no sense deploying a platoon of soldiers if we haven’t the faintest clue where to deploy them. So we’re going to give my friends some time to get us word. And that means you all have some time on your hands and I want to see you better at fending off your attackers and getting as good as Qispi at tackling. Strikers! – over here with me first … I need to show you some tricks of the trade.”
Umberto was surprised at how good the training session ended up being despite all the distractions.
Word did finally reach him at the end of the afternoon as the sun dropped beneath Monte Alto. It just didn’t come from the source Umberto expected.
“Status quo ante bellum.”
Umberto sat in front of a broad hearth with a roaring fire in its maw, listening to his host, none other than Don Eguardo Giamucci, renowned Guayamartí spice merchant and owner of the Wharf Rats footy team. Umberto had been in Giamucci’s octagonal study once before, late the previous spring when Cassandra Thordwall had offered him the deal that got the Militantes into the league. Then, the merchant had ensured two big heavies flanked him, just as Umberto had flanked Thordwall. Now, however, there were no minders around so as to intimidate the Militantes’ Thane of Player Personnel. It was a solo meet-up. Yes, the steward had been around, but only to usher Umberto into the presence of the Wharf Rats’ owner and to serve them goblets of mulled wine.
Giamucci continued. “I agreed to letting Thordwall set up a team because of Ghost Daughter, Paragon of Commerce, and Raging Bounty. Losing those three ships cost me a fortune, especially Daughter.”
Umberto leant back, enjoying the comfort of the armchair. It had cushions bolted onto its back and seat, of all things. The whole thing was strange. Giamucci wasn’t raging or fawning or acting daft. Sure, he sat in his own hoity-toity chair with the trio of dolphins jumping from a wave carved into the wooden frame, but he was being just a regular bloke, holding his knobby, arthritic hands to the fire’s warmth. Except most regular blokes didn’t wear such naff hats. The damned thing looked like a giant golden pancake draped over his shaved head, drooping all around his crown, and featuring four or five big feathers stuck into its ass … if pancakes could be said to have asses.
The whole thing was all so very welcoming, civilized. The only uncomfortable moment had come when Umberto, upon being asked by the steward what he’d like to drink, had requested a goblet of Pintó Macía and had received a pitiful smile from her. She had responded, “Oh, please do not think you must be so modest. Don Eguardo offers his guests much better vintages than that.” Then she had added, with a wink, “I shall fetch you a Montezino Superiore.”
That’ll teach me for thinking good wine in the Lateen’s the same as good wine here in the Merchant Quarter.
Don Eguardo continued, “I didn’t get where I’ve got because I didn’t hatch a crooked plan or two, so I get it when others come up with what I call an ‘under-move’. Under-moves ain’t so bizzarro, am I right?
“So Thordwall – and you too! Don’t think I didn’t notice – barges in here after catching me in an under-move and revealing a pretty good under-move of her own. Pillaging Peggy! Ha! That was a good one. But her angle made sense. The Sea Lords had gone off to pout about us not kicking the Duskdaggers out of the league, so we had a slot for her team, she had the coin to kick-in, and I didn’t have to worry about Pillaging Peggy nabbing another of my ships.
“So you know what happens next?” Umberto had spent enough time around such people to know to keep quiet and wait for the next words. “Ghost Daughter comes sailing into port. Okay, she’s empty. I get that. But a ship’s costly. To get one back after you’ve lost her … well that’s a big boost to the bottom line. Profitto.
“Hey, you hungry? I could down some antipasti. Or maybe a bowl of massa. You want some?”
He’s offering to eat with me?
Umberto frowned. This really hadn’t been what he was expecting.
Well, why not? I am hungry.
He nodded. “Sure.”
“Ha! Great!” His host rang a bell that sat on a small circular table beside his chair. Umberto saw that Giamucci’s arthritic hands made it hard for him to take hold of the bell’s handle. He issued his order to the steward – who really was a fetching woman – and waited until the door had closed again before speaking once more.
“So what I’m saying is …”
The fire crackled and spat in the expectant silence. Umberto had known Giamucci liked to talk, but it had always seemed to be a rapid discussion of things on the go, not moments of deep reflection. He sensed the potency in what the merchant would say next. But then Giamucci seemed to sense it too and backed off.
“Aw, sure, I hatched an under-move or two,” he said instead of what Umberto thought he’d say. There was another long pause.
He’s not used to this. He needs time to get where he’s going.
“Listen, I admit, I did some things to see if I couldn’t buff the Wharf Rats’ odds of having a good season. Ha! Some good that did! Yupanki’s injury really screwed us. Bizzarro how one ogre’s broken hand can throw a whole season off its proper course. Anyway, there were some under-moves and your boss had some of her own, but she’s held to her side of the actual deal, got it?”
Umberto shook his head. “I don’t follow.”
“She said she’d stop the piracy and the piracy’s stopped. That was the deal. She stops the piracy and we let her in. Easy like. Quid pro quo.”
He might have had trouble taking hold of the bell, but his hands didn’t stop him from grabbing the stem of his goblet and knocking back a gulp of mulled wine. Then he leant forward towards the fire, staring into its writhing flames, hypnotized by their shifting dance. When he spoke again, Umberto had the impression his voice came from a long, long way away. “But she threw in Ghost Daughter. She didn’t have to.”
Don Eguardo drained off his Montezino Superiore and set the goblet down. “And what’ve we done?”
Umberto set down his own goblet on the side-table beside his own chair. “Who’s we?”
“The league governors. The teams. The officials, like Slythe. All of us who ain’t the Militantes.”
The steward returned with two steaming bowls of pasta, topped with mushrooms, slices of spicy sausage, and a tomato sauce, all crowed with sprigs of fresh albahaca. Giamucci said a simple “Grazie” and tucked in. Umberto hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he caught the dish’s scent.
The steward handed him the bowl. A folded note found its way into his left hand as she did so. Umberto was well-versed in surreptitious craftwork; without a word of comment or even a glance to betray his surprise, he tucked the note into his jacket pocket.
Then he took up a fork and tucked into the nosh with relish.
Giamucci said around a mouthful of massa, “So wha’d we do? Nulla! Less than nulla! We didn’t keep our side of the deal. Which means she might go back on her side of the deal, meaning my ships might get pirated again! Status quo ante bellum. Back to the bad old days. Bad news for me.”
The merchant finished chewing. “She paid up and we were to let her in, but all we’ve done is keep her out! We didn’t let her take her seat at the Board of Governors for half the season, we fixed the Jesters especially to rip her team apart, we set her up to get caught kidnapping Tancred.
“We all think she’s behind the attack on the league office; it’d certainly be consistent with her style. But two things: one, I’ve done her some crooked stuff ’cause she’s my adversary, but she ain’t my enemy; two, it ain’t the attack on the league office that worries me. It’s the next attack on Ghost Daughter. Got it?”
Umberto still had a mouthful of pasta so he shook his head.
“Okay, well you tell Pillaging Peggy I’m no enemy. A few under-moves between adversaries is okay, but actually putting her and hers in danger’s not what I’m all about. Except on the pitch, right? Players know what they’re getting into when they sign the contract, am I right?
“I’ll prove to her she’s not my enemy, got it? You tell her I’m gonna have trouble keeping the governors from doing anything stupid if the Mongrels lodge a petition tomorrow night. It’d be better for all concerned if the Orcs’ representative lodges a no-complaint before the team actually gets here. To such ends, I can tell you where Grimmy Grimejacket is. Now, Grimmy’s never gonna go against his kind … they’d tear him to shreds.”
The bowls were empty, so Giamucci rose to his feet, bringing the audience to an end.
“But dear ol’ Grimmy can be bought … and you can find him over on Ísquita at El Castillo Negro.”
“Over there?” Umberto was truly shocked.
Giamucci smirked. “Yeah. Like I said, he can be bought. Find out who’s paying il conto, the bill, and you’ll find out who’s behind this mess.”
Umberto bowed and took his leave of the spice merchant. He’d come away with the coordinates for Grimmy Grimejacket.
That wasn’t all. Once outside, aboard a mateo taking him back to the Kingfisher, he reached into his coat pocket, fished out the note, and realized he’d also come away with the coordinates of an attractive, engaging woman.