The Story So Far
Jacyntha, having commandeered a Dark Elf galley, is stuck in Halos’ Foreigners’ Quarter. To her dismay, she remains in grave danger; the governors of Oscurisla want her handed over for murder, theft, and piracy. The foreigners, afraid of the wrath of the governors, consider acceding to the demand. She escapes from the grotty hotel room in which they detained her, making for the wharf under cover of darkness to a cutter she knows will sail on the ebb tide to Guayamartí. She slips aboard and hides in a locker in the cargo hold.
Umberto de la Calle, interim Head Coach of the Mytilan Militantes, explains his new tactic to the Xonyxas. He wants the “squib kick” integrated into the Militantes’ game-plan for the semi-final because he knows, somehow, their opponents are practising how to deal with the Militantes’ famous tactic, the “up-and-under” kick. Thinking about his methods, new team captain Karolyse believes he’s wary of Rodentien spies sent by the Ebolicorum Skitteringi. His confidence that he knows what the Skitteringi are practising leads her to believe he’s got his own informers spying on the opposition’s training sessions. Practice is interrupted by the league’s Officer for Conduct in Halos, the Dwarf Dwarrig son of Dwarran. He asks leave to attend that evening’s memorial for deceased coach Karsgaard Neuvil and then says he has a problem to transfer to the Militantes; compensating the owners of a cutter for heavy fines they will incur for having transported a criminal out of Halos. A woman descends from the carriage Dwarrig had ridden. The Xonyxas swarm around Jacyntha in joy.
“Many were the martyrs.”
The vast majority of the congregation did not know the rite, so only Xonyxa voices sounded in the temple. Even so, Karolyse marvelled at how loud she and her compatriots sounded. There were more than just the Mytilan Militantes’ players; evidently, much of the expatriate Xonyxa community in Guayamartí were in attendance as well as many fans who had arrived to attend the semi-final. The monks who ran the temple had opened the doors so that an overflow crowd could listen to the service from the street. Old friends of Coach Karsgaard were there, including Pierce Rosethorn and Dwarrig son of Dwarran. Other league officials attended, including most of the Board of Governors. Indeed, Eguardo Giamucci looked genuinely distraught, a knobby hand dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. Although Coach Karsgaard’s service with the Imperials had led to his infamy, Duc Tancred de Baston was in attendance alongside a morose Anne d’Arc and a steadfast Stéphane de Bellefleure. Sam Gosling and the staff of the Luffing Lateen had crowded into a far corner. Even the Xonyxas’ new agent, the Goblin Grimmy Grimejacket, held his bicorne over his heart, his scabby grey-green head bowed in respect for the dead.
That so many attended the memorial service of such a notorious coach was a surprise, but not as big a one as the appearance of one particular mourner. Team owner Cassandra Thordwall had reemerged from hiding to grieve alongside her players. She stood silent and stoic, not a shred of the good humour she had shown upon arriving, when she had explained her absence by saying, “A good pirate always has a hidden cove marked on her charts.”
Jacyntha continued the chant. “And the blood of the martyrs became to Mytilan a seed that was sown.”
“And we are the shoot that grew from the seed,” Karolyse responded with her sisters.
“And every generation casts the seed of the seed.”
“And their blood is the seed that makes us grow.”
“And the seed shall never be forgotten.”
“Not even unto the day Xonyx returns.”
“So it is.” Thus Jacyntha brought an end to the liturgy, picking Chico off the altar and setting him in his basket, to the great relief of everyone but the Xonyxas, who knew him well enough to know he wasn’t a threat.
Karolyse studied Jacyntha. There were bags under her cousin’s eyes. The eyes were glassy and held a far-away stare. Her limbs moved as though weights were strapped to them. A half-smile emitted sorrow instead of happiness. That afternoon, Jacyntha had learned to her great horror how Rennigan Slythe had collaborated with Nytmir Curseweaver to sacrifice Coach Karsgaard to the foul Dark Elf god. Then, still weeping over their coach’s demise, she had told Karolyse and her sisters about rejecting the marriage their Queen had brokered with Duc Tancred de Baston, jumping ship, overcoming slavers, and stowing away on a vessel hired by the league itself. She had been through a lot, but Karolyse knew Jacyntha was stronger than her mother believed. Indeed, ’Cyntha was stronger than most people believed.
“I’d like to say a few words,” Mistress Thordwall said, stepping up to the altar. The woman had set aside her stoicism; her smile now beamed warmth. “Karsgaard lived dangerously.” Then she gave an exaggerated shrug and added, “What Nordman doesn’t?” That remark generated a few isolated chuckles.
“He started life as a pirate. He once told me the ship he was on burnt down to the waterline on his first sailing. He was captured and made to work digging a moat in Chivalria for a year before being ransomed. When he could, he joined a footy team – the very one that made me fall in love with the sport. You see, I come from Mannheim, on that side of the sea. I saw his Nordhammers defeat the hometown Brawlers a half-dozen times. He risked harm or worse every game for seven seasons. Becoming a coach brought its own risks … as we see here today.
“We are sad to have lost a colleague, a mentor, a vinr.
“But were he able to speak to us now, he’d remind everyone he was presently in a good place, feasting alongside heroes who departed before him … like our Occlo. So, in honour of those beliefs and to do him honour as a giant of the game, I invite you all to the Luffing Lateen where we will crack open a kilderkin of Gosling’s finest ale and roar out our stories of Karsgaard Neuvil until the wee hours!”
There was a moment of silence as everyone digested the news; funerals were sombre affairs in Guayamartí. Then Eguardo Giamucci yelled, “Right bang! We’ll drink just like regular Nordmen! Hell, I’ll get massa brought in. But I tell you, Thordwall, you’re gonna need to crack more than one kilderkin!”
The congregation changed in the blink of an eye into a throng of revellers. They flooded out of the temple and streamed down the cobbled streets towards the strand that ran along the Maral Canal.
As she left the temple, Karolyse blinked against the sunlight, then pulled her cloak tight. More than the footy season was coming to an end: so was autumn. Flurries would soon blow through these streets. She waited until Jacyntha came out carrying Chico’s basket and they walked arm in arm down to the Luffing Lateen.
“Leave me in peace.”
Pierce Rosethorn tilted his head like a Geckoid spotting a small, juicy mammal scurrying through the jungle. “Now, now, young one,” the Sylvan replied to Jacyntha in that melodic, arrogant voice of his. “Do not begrudge me the opportunity to lament the passing of my friend. And I would have thought his team would be magnanimous enough to accept my sincere condolences.” She smouldered at the rebuke. “Oh, and I would be remiss not to congratulate you on your betrothal to King Carles.”
Jacyntha ignored the barb about her betrothal. “Don’t for a moment think your disingenuous condolences to the team are welcome. You pitted me against Occlo, my dearest friend, and you did it to get another notch either in your belt or in your team’s win column. And meddling with us was meddling with your dear friend’s team. Some way to treat a friend! Some way to treat women!”
Rosethorn sighed and shook his head. “Even before your birth, I meddled with Karsgaard’s teams. Am I not Pierce Rosethorn, the most brilliant of the stars in the night sky, the glorious breeze that passes through all defences, the Dancer in the Promised Land? I danced in Karsgaard’s end zone dozens of times and he never complained. Neither did he complain about me spending time with either you or Occlo. And I must say, Occlo never complained about her time with me.”
“Women are often too polite for their own good, Rosethorn. No doubt she didn’t complain because she didn’t want to bruise your fragile masculinity. Maybe you need women to tell things to you straight so’s you can get your brain around them. So, I’ll do you a favour and give you some advice. Straight up. The fact your badger tattoo glows in the dark isn’t as enchanting as you seem to think. It’s ridiculous. Stupid. Infantile. Now, get out of my way,” she thrust her hand to push him out her path to the kilderkin. Rosethorn pivoted his torso and her hand met air.
“I keep telling you,” he said with that smarmy smile of his.
“Yes, yes,” she snapped, interrupting him. Then she affected a pretentious tone similar to the one he always used, “ ‘The moment you lay a finger on me on the pitch is the moment I hang up my boots. Blah, blah, blah.’ Fuck you.”
She stomped off but couldn’t help hear the bastard say to someone else, “Ah, how they burn themselves out before us; Karsgaard to Nytmir, that steely rose to me. Like moths before the flame of the Elder races.”
Throwing you onto flames is a great idea!
She wanted to speak to Mistress Thordwall but the Militantes’ owner seemed occupied, discussing something with an absurd-looking Goblin wearing a bicorn. She caught this latter saying, “Nah! Seven won’t cut it given past ex – ploy – TAY -tion …”
She carried on over to where Gosling was pouring ale from the Kilderkin. After he refilled her flagon, she looked around the crowded Lateen. Despite the cold that gripped Guayamartí, Gosling had opened the shutters given how much body heat the throng inside was generating. She saw the palm trees along the strand swaying in the wind. The far-off Forteresa Almenara stood on its headland beyond the city. The dwindling light held a golden hue. Silver-limned clouds blew across the bay towards a purpling horizon. There was a message in what she saw.
If only I could decipher it.
She turned and saw a mousy young man with a bowed head beside her. “Yes?”
“Well, I … ah …” he stammered. Then in a sudden rush he blurted, “I really like you!” She recoiled but he followed up with an exclamation of, “No! I meant …” He turned beet red. “My cousin got me into some footy games this season. I’ve seen the MIlitantes play thrice! What I mean is, you’re my team. I really like you … the Militantes.” Jacyntha couldn’t help but chuckle. Then he added, “I also really liked Karsgaard Neuvil, whatever some people say he might’ve done. He built a great team. My team! You’re the captain and all. I wanted … I wanted to thank you.”
“Well, that really encourages me. What’s your name?”
He perked up. He even stood straighter. “Me? I’m called Nykal.” He almost smiled. “There’s one other thing I want …”
She nodded to him, coaxing it out.
“I really want you to beat the Skitteringi in the semis!”
She smiled. “Thank you, Nykal. You’ve helped me decipher a message.”
He perked up even further. “Did I?”
She could tell he mustered all his courage to ask, “What was the message?”
“ ‘Grieve, but move forward’.” She saw his confusion. “Never mind. It’s just a reminder there’s a league championship I want to win. Now, you spoke about a cousin. Is she here? Would you introduce me to her?”
“It’s a him, not a her. But yes! That’d be brilliant!”
Young Nykal led her away, timidly, but grinning and giddy with excitement.