The Story So Far
After Cassandra Thordwall, owner of the Mytilan Militantes, organizes the sacking of the Sommer Sea Football League’s office by thugs she hired, she goes into hiding from the law. Without the owner, without the coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, who has been abducted by the league officials, and without team captain Jacyntha who departed with Queen Beatriz’ fleet, it falls to Thordwall’s bodyguard, Umberto de la Calle, to sort things out. He needs to get the team ready for the wild card game against the Jesters, to find the Mongrel’s local agent, the Goblin Grimmy Grimejacket, and persuade him to withdraw a complaint against the Militantes about match-fixing, and needs to find Neuvil. At the practice pitch, the Xonyxas remind him they were all warriors before playing footy. He agrees a platoon of troops will be useful, but he needs to know where to deploy said platoon. His network of informants needs time.
When news finally comes, it is from an unexpected source: Eguardo Giamucci, rival team owner and antagonist to Thordwall. Umberto meets the spice merchant and, to his great surprise, finds the man angst-ridden. Giamucci is afraid the league’s attempts to thwart the Militantes amount to reneging on the bargain Thordwall negotiated at the very beginning to set aside her piracy in exchange for getting a team in the league. Giamucci says Thordwall is his adversary but not his enemy. Clearly worried that his ships will again fall prey to Pillaging Peggy, he tells Umberto where to find Grimmy Grimejacket … at El Castillo Negro, an up-scale posada, or hotel, in Ísquita, the rich part of town. Shocked that Grimejacket could afford such a posada, Giamucci notes whoever’s paying the bill for the Goblin is “behind this mess.”
“We can’t actually murder the little shit.”
“Right,” Karolyse said in response to his declaration, “because murder’s bad.”
Umberto shook his head. “No, it’s not that. We need him alive, see.”
They were using Cassandra Thordwall’s “office” in the Kingfisher Inn down by the docks. He had asked Karolyse as the new de facto captain of the team and the team apothecary, Huaco-chic’ya, as the elder stateswoman of the Xonyxas, to both be present.
Umberto continued, “We can’t just wait for him to cross the Ponte Regale and fill him up with crossbow bolts. According to Giamucci, we actually need him to go down to the league office and lodge a no-complaint declaration. The problem is he’ll not come out of that posada until the Mongrels fetch him, take my word for it. He’ll suck every moment of ecstasy that he can out of that paradise. We have to get inside and somehow drag him out.”
“Can we?” Huaco-chic’ya asked.
He shook his head again and frowned. “El Castillo Negro has staff to keep riff-raff like me out.”
“But not me,” Karolyse said.
Umberto frowned. “How so?”
The striker smiled. “They’ll let me in. How could they not? I am Mytilan royalty, after all.”
“You’re shitting me!”
Karolyse winked. “I’m Jacyntha’s second cousin. We had the same great grandmother. My mother is the Duxa of Tillansia. I’ll dress up in my finery and they’ll let me in. They’d have no reason to keep me out.”
He glanced over at Huaco-chic’ya, who nodded. “It’s true. If she doesn’t die on the pitch, she’ll be defending Galto’s Wall one day in her own right.”
Umberto nodded. “Okay. Could work. I’d want you to have someone watching your back.”
They figured out a plan whereby Laylalla and Qispi would accompany the duxa’s daughter. Umberto passed Karolyse a pouch. “You’ve got the coin you’ll need in there. Try not to spend it all. It’s my signing bonus.”
“You got a signing bonus? I thought you’ve worked for Mistress Thordwall for years?”
He shrugged. “I signed-on to a new gig, didn’t I?”
Just then Ellpay came running up the Kingfisher’s stairs. “Umberto!” she cried. “There’s a woman downstairs says she wants to speak to you. It’s about Karsgaard!”
It took all Umberto’s cool not just to stampede off downstairs. He told Karolyse to get on with the plan and asked Huaco-chic’ya to make sure her medical kit was ready. When they had departed he asked Ellpay to show the woman up. Then he went and sat in the chair Cassandra usually used for her meetings. He liked the feel of sitting in the chair behind the table.
It was his informant Sandrina who Ellpay brought up, the woman he had tasked with following Rennigan Slythe. He asked Ellpay to remain outside the door and ensure no one listened in. Then he listened to Sandrina’s news. When she was done, he paid her and sent her back to her duties before speaking to Ellpay. “Get your teammates. Civies, like we discussed. I don’t want you all looking like soldiers, see. But I want you armed. Have everyone be here before sundown.”
Ellpay’s mouth dropped open. “That’s really soon!”
He nodded. “We’ve no time to lose. Quick now; go!”
He liked sitting at the desk right enough but dammit if some decisions were proving tricky. As much as he wanted to be at the league office when Karolyse brought in Grimmy Grimejacket, rescuing Karsgaard was the more important action. And if Sandrine had seen Rennigan Slythe coming down the steps of the tall granary in the Muelles del Bosque neighbourhood, then Umberto would bet a fortune Karsgaard was being held up there.
In the end, he decided his skills were a better fit with the extraction operation.
The Xonyxas deployed in three squads of four. Umberto walked alone, professing nonchalance but actually on-edge. They sidled along the Maral Canal and then broke off in different directions so as to come at the granary from different angles. Sunset gave way to full night. He could see the round, stone tower with its conical roof backlit by the rising moon. Normally he’d prefer an approach such as this to be timed for a moonless night, but they were expecting a fight so a little light might play to their advantage.
What the hell’s that?
He thought he’d heard the high-pitched keening of a woman’s voice. He quickened his pace and pulled his dagger out from under his coat. He saw Belyna’s squad converging on the tower from the Candalaria, the neighbourhood on the Laguna Maya, but he didn’t see the other two squads just yet.
Then he heard the voice again. It keened in a chant that only just reached his ears, floating down to street level from upon high: Ha! Karma wynath!
He thought he heard a pair of voices respond: Karma Hoo!
Suddenly he remembered where he’d heard something like that before: the Eztadio Matadoras in the Dark Elf city of Halos.
He had also recognized the voice: Nytmir Curseweaver.
He cast aside all pretext at subterfuge and broke into a sprint. The Dark Elf witch who played for the Jesters was conducting a sacrifice. And Umberto had only one guess who might be on the receiving end of her sacrificial dagger.
“Them’s slave wages!”
Karolyse rolled her eyes. Grimmy Grimejacket’s thinking was hard to follow, jumping from one subject to another without any segue linking them. They sat in cushioned chairs in the sunroom of El Castillo Negro, the posada perched on an outcropping of Ísquita near the citadel, a splendid room that offered guests the most amazing sunset views of the seas off Guayamartí. The golden aurora hanging off the horizon was dimming into pinks and oranges.
Karolyse had never met a Goblin before … or at least one she hadn’t up-ended on the football pitch … so she hadn’t expected Grimejacket to be so talkative.
And so well dressed!
He wore a crimson jacket with gold embroidery overtop a white blouse with ruffles around his scrawny neck and at his wrists. On his head, perched lengthwise, sat a deep blue bicorn hat, again with golden stitching, but also with four gleaming brass buttons reaching up the left side. White breeks and knee-length black leather boots with silver buckles topped of the High Elf Admiral look. Needless to say, on Grimmy Grimejacket, it was all absurd.
“We were talking about the non-complaint submission to the league,” she reminded the diminutive Goblin. He was the Mongrels’ agent in Guayamartí and could pull the rug out from beneath Rennigan Slythe’s investigation into accusations of match-fixing ahead of the Militantes’ match against the Imperials. All he had to do was a non-complaint submission, rendering the issue irrelevant, but he had to do it that very evening, before the Mongrels themselves returned from Halos the next morning.
“No we wasn’t talking about no submission. You was. I was talkin’ ’bout three silvers a match. None my clients work for nuttin like that. That’s ex-ploy-tation, that is.”
“Ah well, you see, we all did know the offer before we joined,” Karolyse said by way of putting an end to the subject. “Now, I understand you might be seeking compensation …”
“Nah!” his exclamation came out almost like a whine. “Knowin’ an offer don’t not make it ex-ploy-tation, if you take my meaning. Believe me! I could get a Procurator to take it to a Magistrate, you know. Ain’t nothin’ stopping us. I tells ya, now’s the time to do it! Just before the play-offs.”
“So you think we’d still play in the league’s knock-out stages?” Getting such an admission from the slippery creature would be a positive step and she couldn’t help but sound excited at the prospect.
Grimejacket looked appalled for a moment. “I ain’t never said that!” Then he calmed himself by summoning over a server to pour him bubbling wine into one of those absurdly expensive goblets made out of crystal. “I could git yaz all … now I’m just blue-skyin’ here … but I don’t think nine’s out of the question … before my commission, that is.”
He took a gulp of his wine and lurched forward, choking: some wine came shooting out his three-inch long greenish nose. He coughed and spluttered, snatched a kerchief proffered by the server, and he dabbed up the droplets from his face. Then he blew his nose into the cloth before handing the sodden mess back to the queasy-looking man. “This stuff sure don’t taste like wine! It certainly don’t go down like wine.”
Karolyse sighed. “The non-complaint submission …”
“Whadya keep bringin’ that up for?”
She put on her most charming smile and said, “It is rather why I’m here.”
“Maybe, but I knows these things,” he said with a wink. “What youz all really wants is to escape the shackles of ex-ploy-tation! At nine silvers per game you’d be coming out a full six silvers ahead, see? Well, five ahead after the modest sum that’d come my way in scant recognition for my dedicated services an’ all.”
The sunset turned from pinks and oranges to plums and violets. Stars were appearing in the darkening sky. The moon was rising.
“My sisters and I really do need you lodge your non-complaint petition.”
Grimejacket shook his head. “The Mongrels are my clients. I ain’t gonna do nothin’ what goes against their interests now, am I? I’m a professional. They heard about the match-fixing and wanted me to lodge a complaint to Slythe about that against the Imperials, so I did. I have in-teg-rity.” He said that last word as though he really thought they were three. “And they’s Orcs. Orcs is dangerous. I really, really ain’t gonna do nothin’ what goes agin them.”
He pointed a scrawny finger at her and concluded, “The league deducts even a point from you and they get into the play-offs.” Then he used his thumb to tap his own chest. “As it stands, I’m the guy what’s gonna get them there.”
Looking at the crystal goblet in Grimejacket’s hand crystallized an idea in Karolyse’s mind.
“How much do you earn as the Mongrels’ agent when they’re not here to defend their own interests?”
Grimejacket smiled. It was a ghastly smile, all crooked rows of yellowish pegs. “A retainer, like, of five silvers and then a thrice per task.”
She looked around El Castillo Negro, then at his clothes, and then at the sparkling wine in his goblet.
There’s no way he can be staying here on that.
She gestured to their surroundings. “The Mongrels aren’t paying for this.” Her mother, the Duxa of Tillansia, was first cousin to Mytilan’s Queen Beatriz and thus fourth in line to the throne. As the Duxa’s daughter, Karolyse was no stranger to thinking in certain ways, especially if it made sense of certain other things … like why Jacyntha had departed without bidding her teammates goodbye.
“Mytilan is paying for this!”
Grimejacket nodded. “See! You’s smarter than what you gives yourself credit for. For some reason, Queen Beatriz didn’t want you’s all in the play-offs neither. Her offer lined up nicely with my clients’ interests. Win – win. Now you should be able to see the advantage of havin’ Grimmy the Grafter as your agent.”
Karolyse nodded and leaned forward. “Just so. My sisters all asked me to come down and see if you’d take us on. We’re tired of all the … exploitation … and we’re looking for a true professional to advance our interests. A one silver cut of our match fees seems reasonable … upon successful renegotiation of our contract with Cassandra Thordwall, of course. Taken all together, all thirteen players at the moment, well that would make us amongst your most important clients, would it not?”
He nodded, the sparkle in his eyes brighter than that coming off the bubbly wine.
Then she made a sad face. “But, we’ll not collect any more match fees this season if we don’t make the play-offs. It would be in our interests, yours and ours, were we to play against the Jesters this coming festival day.”
Grimmy Grimejacket raised his hands in celebration, sending a jet of fizzy wine onto a passing nobleman. “You reek ah! I think I can arrange all that on the nonce!”
Karolyse breathed a deep sigh of relief. “You lodge the non-complaint?”
“And get myself kilt? No way! But I’ll change it. It won’t be about match-fixing between the Militantes and the Imperials. It’ll be directed only at the Imperials for damaging the integrity of the competition by fielding a weaker side. The only team they’ll be able to dock points off will be the Imperials. I’ll leave you all out of it.”
Then he leaned forward and grinned again, “But I’ll still be able to demonstrate to the Mongrels that I lodged a complaint as they directed. Pure genius!”
That was when an explosion rocked the El Bosque Quarter, shaking the very foundations of El Castillo Negro.