The Story So Far
Our old friends Hansi the stevedore and his cousin Nykal attend the wild card game between the Jesters and the Militantes. Fans now dislike the all-star team after the horrors visited upon Guayamartí by three Jester players. Rumour has it Rennigan Slythe died a hero. He had tracked down the abducted Militantes’ coach Karsgaard Neuvil to a granary loft and halted a demonic ritual being conducted by Nytmir Curseweaver and her kith. Her ritual was meant to kill Neuvil but instead triggered the explosion that rocked the city. Slythe was found on a nearby rooftop, dying, gasping, “De la calle, de la calle.” That he wanted to be remembered for being one with the downtrodden, literally those “of the street”, he endeared himself as a martyr to footy. The Militantes are the subject of an outpouring of sympathy after Neuvil’s death. The Mongrels’ petition about match-fixing was modified by the Goblin agent Grimmy Grimejacket to target only the Imperials, who have been replaced in the play-offs by the Orcs. The Eztadio de Sanger roars with approval when the Militantes take to the pitch.
Down three key players (Curseweaver and the two Dark Elf strikers), the Jesters have a hard time penetrating the Militantes’ lines. Star Minotaur Goriada gets lured to the sidelines where she is sent flying into the crowd and injured. Anahuark expertly fouls vulnerable opponents. Belyna causes a turnover and Karolyse sends the ball to her teammates. Last-ditch attempts by the Centaur Bryce Bushtramplla come undone and the Militantes score. The game doesn’t get any better for the Jesters.
“I’m no one’s property!”
Jacyntha whispered the words out loud, she realized, to give herself the courage she needed as she studied the darkened wharf in Halos’ Foreigners’ Quarter. She had never imagined the turn of events that would occur after she had tied the slave galley up to that same wharf just three days prior. Port officials had reacted in shock. They had ordered her to stop unlocking the slaves’ shackles. She had ignored them and with every freed rower, the officials realized it would be harder to get the situation under control. One called for the Foreigners’ Quarter guards and threatened to hand everyone on board over to the Dark Elf rulers. Another warned that these same rulers might order their troops to clean the quarter out, seizing the liberated slaves and maybe even enslaving every non-Dark Elf in the city. A third had called the other two savages and had come aboard to help Jacyntha unshackle the victims at the thwarts.
How could slavery, a crime against decency, be the subject of debate? She knew there were realities; the Dark Elves might invade the district that had been set up by treaty. It would be stupid, likely triggering wars with every country around the Sommer Sea, but it wasn’t unknown for leaders to act stupidly. In the pit of her stomach, she understood why the denizens of the quarter had hesitated. But her understanding a thing didn’t mean she sympathized with it.
There are moral absolutes and slavery is one of them.
Its odiousness needed to be stamped out at every turn, including here in Halos. And to think the fine free folk were considering handing over the one person who had dared do the stamping! They had taken her to a grotty old inn, secured a sub-standard room, and ordered her to stay in it. Jacyntha had bided her time there and thanked the Jaguar they hadn’t stripped her of her purse.
Well, the Viper-bitten Dark Elf captain’s purse, but giving it to me posthumously was better than he deserved.
She had made enquiries and found out a ship was sailing to Guayamartí on the next ebb tide. In the deep of night she had slipped out her room’s window. She had crept through alleyways and narrow laneways to end up hiding behind a warehouse surveilling the ship in question.
She shook her head clear of what had happened. It was the now that was important. She took a deep breath and moved forward, skittering low on her haunches to the bollard about which the cutter’s mooring hawsers were tied. No cry went up.
Two of the lanterns illuminating the wharf had gone out and it was dark next to the cutter bobbing on its moorings. A guard sat on a barrel atop the gangplank but he or she slouched against the rail, emitting a faint drone of snoring. Jacyntha had seen guards do that on purpose, including one wily Xonyxa sentry who had spitted a score of Geckoids over the years by luring them within spear-length in just such a manner. Even so, dawn wasn’t far off and she’d have to risk her gambit.
She put her weight on the hawser little by little. The cutter responded and crept forward … but the guard didn’t move and the droning snore continued. She entwined her legs around the rope and shifted her full weight, climbing the hawser like a wharf rat (the irony didn’t escape her). She reached the hull and pulled herself aboard.
She slid across the deck on her belly to the forward cargo hatch. She shifted the wooden grate and slipped down inside the cargo hold. If it was dark wharf-side, down here it was like the inside of an anaconda. Feeling her way around in the dark, she found a chest of some description. She fumbled at the lid, found a clasp, undid it. Inside was canvas from the feel of it, lots of canvas.
There was enough space inside for her to jam herself in and almost close the lid.
“It’s a squib kick.”
Karolyse and the other Xonyxas sat on the tiers of benches that lined their practice pitch. A cold wind was blowing off the bay so the players were all wrapped in fur cloaks. Umberto didn’t favour them for some reason, preferring to layer woollen pull-overs underneath his ever-present coat. As the team’s kicker, it fell to Cuxi-Mikay to ask, “So it’s different from our up-and-under kick?”
Umberto nodded. “Sure is. We’ve gotta surprise them, see. We pummelled them during the regular season because we caught them off-guard with your up-and-under, Cux. But mind two things: one, they finished first, and; two, they are the defending champions. They’re sly enough and skilled enough to learn from their mistakes. Trust me, they’re working on how to deal with the up-and-under as we speak.”
He’s got a contact spying on them.
Karolyse didn’t know how she knew, she just knew.
Coach Karsgaard – may the Jaguar guide his soul – had always been so straightforward. Umberto, now that he was handling their practices, was different. He showed up each morning with a pack of street urchins recruited from the favela overlooking the old, roofed forum they used for training. There was always breakfast awaiting the children in the adjacent cottage. Once fed, he sent them off up the slopes of the slum. He would then explain the objective of the day’s training to the team but he wouldn’t let practice start until the kids came back and gave him an all-clear signal. All of them.
Today was different, though. Even before the children had returned, he had the catchers, Ometicul, Anahuark, and Ellpay, practising fielding high kicks. He had also asked Cux to kick some balls outside of the old forum so she could hit them higher than the roof allowed. It was only after one of the older children reported that Umberto sat them down and spoke of the squib kick.
“It’s a similar idea to the up-and-under, see, just backwards. They kick-off and we get the ball quickly to Cux. Then they snap their disgusting little fingers and think ‘up-and-under’. Off they go, or at least some of ’em, skittering into the backfield as protection. They won’t make the mistake of letting their thrower catch the ball after what Ocllo did to Snisneek Griffeciel last time. No. They’ll have a pair of sewer-slippers hanging back. So the Skitteringi’ll likely have five back and probably three pressuring Cux and three spread out. They’re expecting time. They think the kick’s going to go high. It’s gotta go ‘up’ high enough for us to get ‘under’ it … ‘up-and-under’, right? So, what if Cux doesn’t kick it high?”
Jacyntha would have guessed. Everyone waited for Umberto to tell them.
“She kicks it along the pitch … a squib kick. It bounces more or less to a far corner, where we know it’s going but where they don’t, see?”
“Why not just throw it?” asked Pillcu, who Umberto was training up to take Jacyntha’s place as thrower. Poor Pillcu likely knew why the Militantes shouldn’t throw the ball, though; she didn’t exactly have ’Cyntha’s accuracy.
Umberto shook his head. “Gives the sewer-slippers time to pressure the catcher or maybe pull off an interception. The strength of the squib kick, see, is that no one can predict exactly where it’s going to end up because of the shape of the ball. The sewer-slippers can’t draw a bead on it. And we’ll have superior numbers in the quadrant where we know it’s going to go.”
They practised the manoeuvre over and over all morning. At midday a carriage pulled up to the training pitch and disgorged a pair of men and a Dwarf who looked familiar to Karolyse.
Well, they’re all short, stout, and bearded. No wonder he looks familiar.
The trio approached after a pair of Umberto’s street urchins checked them out. The men looked like sailors.
“Umberto de la Calle, son of Rodrigo de la Calle,” the Dwarf boomed. “You are well-met.”
Umberto couldn’t hide the look of surprise that took over his face. He marched up the steps from the sunken dirt pitch and bowed. The Xonyxas drifted over. Umberto straightened and said, “Dwarrig son of Dwarren. It is a surprise to see you. A good surprise, mind you. What brings you to Guayamartí? You didn’t have work enough in Halos?”
The league Officer for Conduct!
Karolyse had seen the Dwarf during the Militantes’ games in the Dark Elf city across the Procura Strait. Hence the impression of familiarity. He had a furrowed brow, a mouth that looked like it had just bitten into a particularly sour lemon, and hunched shoulders as though ready for a fight. But his bright blue eyes danced and the corner of his mouth was twitching into a smile off and on. She had the impression the Dwarf was holding in anger and mirth at the same time.
“Sudden vacancy came up here, as you know. I knew Rennigan …” He took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Well, I knew him well enough to say he greatly surprised me with his heroics, nearly saving Karsgaard and all.”
A dozen Xonyxas gasped and at least half that blurted out a protest, but Umberto turned and made a slicing gesture across his throat. The women had all served in Mytilan’s military; they recognized an order to hold their tongues when they saw it.
“I must say it’s hard to believe,” Umberto replied.
Dwarrig frowned. “His ancestors will welcome him.”
Yeah, in hell.
“Well, I’m not here to talk about that, but I’d like to attend tonight. We were friends once, Karsgaard and I.”
That night the team would formally bid their former coach farewell in the temple they used down in the Barrio. Umberto said, “You will be welcome. What are you here to chat about?”
Dwarrig turned to the two sailors. “These good men run the cutter I sailed in on. This is Master Insigne, owner of the Swordfish.” The man, Insigne, nodded. Umberto did likewise. “This is Harder, he’s Swordfish’s captain.” Harder and Umberto also exchanged nods.
“Welcome to the training ground of the Mytilan Militantes,” Umberto said. “It’s not as swanky as what the Imperials or the Wharf Rats use, and it’s open to spies … which the Skitteringi have sent every morning, mister league Officer for Conduct … but we like it.”
Dwarrig said, “I shall pay the blasted vermin a visit and threaten them.”
Umberto nodded. “Tomorrow afternoon, if you please, not today.” Dwarrig looked puzzled by the request but nodded. “So, to what do we owe the visit?”
“I have a story to tell that will illuminate all. After Swordfish had cast off from Halos to catch the ebb tide, my kinsdwarf Magror son of Magron came running to the wharf from our office. He yelled out to me that a pigeon had arrived with the result of the wild card game. Swordfish was gathering speed and Captain Harder rightly didn’t want to put in so I called to Magror to tell me. Magror has a booming voice, even for one of our kind, and he yelled out ‘Militantes three, Jesters naught’, whereupon a loud squeal sounded from the hold, revealing a stowaway. She was hauled up on deck and claimed she had ties to your team.”
Karolyse and the other Xonyxas flooded forward. The Dwarf genuinely appeared angered-pleased now. He said, “The woman put these good men in a tricky position. She could pay them passage but there’s more at play: smuggling a suspected murderer, thief, and pirate.”
Pirate? Mistress Thordwall?
“When Swordfish returns to Halos, there’ll be fines to pay. Heavy fines. The woman said you’d cover the costs. Given her claim of ties to the league, I’ve been saddled with resolving the matter … though it is now your problem, not mine.”
Dwarrig son of Dwarran turned to the carriage and signalled. A couple of big men climbed out and turned to help a shackled prisoner negotiate the steps down.
Karolyse couldn’t believe her eyes when the men stepped aside.
“ ’Cyntha!” Ell’s voice came out in a shrill scream.
The Militantes had never moved so fast as they did crossing the terrain from the pitch to the carriage.