The Story So Far
The Militantes hold a funeral for their coach, Karsgaard Neuvil. The temple is packed with Karsgaard’s old friends, league officials, and fans he had won over to the Xonyxa team. Even team owner Cassandra Thordwall emerges from hiding to attend. She speaks about Neuvil’s life and his philosophy. In honour of his certainty that he’d feast in the after-life with Ocllo and his former teammates, she invites everyone back to the Luffing Lateen. The enthusiasm of her adversary, owner of the Wharf Rats Eguardo Giamucci, rallies the crowd to good spirits.
At the wake in the Lateen, Pierce Rosethorn again angers Jacyntha by presuming to pass his condolences as a former dear friend of Neuvil. Upset after the testy exchange, she pushes past the Sylvan … only to miss, yet again. She mimics his absurd statement: “ ‘The moment you lay a finger on me on the pitch is the moment I hang up my boots. Blah, blah, blah.’ ” Her melancholy is interrupted by an unlikely source; a timid fan dares speak to her, stammering that he’d been able to attend three Militantes’ matches and that he’s come to really like them. He even came to like Karsgaard Neuvil, whatever the past allegations against him might have been. He adds there’s one other thing he’d like; for the Militantes to beat the Skitteringi in the semis. Jacyntha thanks young Nykal for having helped her understand something … that she has to move forward. It’s a reminder that “… there’s a league I want to win.”
“The armband’s yours. You earned it.”
Karolyse stood holding her hand out, offering up the captain’s armband, but Jacyntha shook her head. “Come on, ’Cyntha,” she said to her cousin. “Just because you couldn’t play last game doesn’t mean you’re not our leader.”
“We need lots of leaders.” Jacyntha shook her head again and put on one of those false smiles she’d been wearing since finding out about Coach Karsgaard’s death.
Anahuark stepped forward and snatched the armband. “That’s all we need! A princess and a duxa’s daughter arguing about who gets to lead the unwashed masses.” She pulled the armband up around her left bicep.
“¡Viva la revolución!” shouted Ellpay with all her usual enthusiasm, citing the Guayamarteño saying commonly heard in the back-streets of the Barrio. Many echoed Ell’s battlecry. Anahuark and the others laughed. Karolyse exchanged a puzzled look with Jacyntha.
Grimmy Grimejacket’s been spreading his ideas.
Ana added, “ ’Cyntha’s right about one thing. We need lots of leaders. Every single one of us has a job to do today. We’re all accountable to each other for executing the game plan.”
“I couldn’t have said it better.” Umberto walked into the changing room carrying a crate. The players quietened, even Ell. He set the crate on the floor right in the middle of the room and handed out jars to the players.
Dew of the Dreamvine.
The team physician, Huaco-chic’ya said, “Slather it on and then take a drink of it. We don’t want any of you showing symptoms of the Plaga roja in two days’ time.” Karolyse and her sisters took up the jars and followed her instructions, remembering the life-threatening fever that had wracked Jacyntha after having played the Skitteringi in the pre-season.
Umberto said, “We’ve been over the squib kick. I’m not worried about you executing that. They’ve brought their star thrower back, Snisneek Griffeciel. You’ll remember him, Jacyntha … he’s the one who likely contaminated you. Don’t fall for his screen. He can throw farther than you’d think and he loves drawing players in only to throw over them.”
Jacyntha nodded. “I’ve not forgotten.”
“You’ll also remember Gnashnash Flailtail the Uber-vermin …”
“IT’S GOT A TAIL!” the Xonyxas yelled at him as one bellowing voice, harkening back to their preparation for their regular-season game against the Rodentiens.
He nodded. “That’s right. There’s one last thing what bears mentioning. I sometimes pay a visit to people who make sure other people know how much we appreciate their work on the pitch, see, but today that visit didn’t go as planned. Some calls may go against us today, I need you all to have a lock solid grip on your anger.”
“The Skitteringi’ve bribed the ref?” Karolyse asked.
Umberto shrugged. “The league clamps down on these sorts of things for play-off games. Might be my contacts knew they were being watched. But just in case they’d already received an offer too lucrative to consider mine, let’s just say you’d better keep your emotions in check.”
“We can do that,” Ana said. Then, turning to the others, “Let’s go hunt rat!”
The team flooded out into the blustery grey day to the roar of the fans, onto a pitch white with frost and hard. The first Blue Blood Cup semi-final was about to get under way.
The damned Rodentien had bobbled the kick-off deep in the Skitteringi backfield. Laylalla and Belyna having already opened a hole in the opposing line, Jacyntha had decided to run the gap and go after the bouncing boarskin. Griffeciel had scurried after the ball, mishandled it again, and scurried even deeper into his half of the pitch. The thrower had been cut by the Skitteringi after Ocllo had rung his bell early in the season – supposedly because his sight had gone fuzzy – so it didn’t surprise her that Griffeciel was looking for the ball. It had rolled right around behind him while he was looking left and right. By this time she had sped up to a full sprint, increasingly sure she’d upend the Rodentien and score an early touchdown. But just as she had closed in, his disgusting, wound-festering arm had reached out and he had snatched the ball off the ground. Suddenly he was off, dashing cross-field with the boarskin tucked in an elbow and both hands firmly shielding it. She had lunged at him, a diving tackle that should have taken him down, but he had leapt over her as she went flying in. Rolling back to her feet, she had seen Ellpay come racing over, cutting off his path forward. But then Griffeciel had thrown to a wide-open, Viper-bitten sewer-slipper near the sideline, who took off downfield.
“Stoopit woomans. Stoopit, stoopit womans!” Griffeciel cackled in glee. The snake-bitten Rodentien hadn’t lured just one opponent into his trap, he’d lured two!
Ell should have turned and jogged back upfield, but having run so far into the Skitteringi backfield and, obviously angry, she laid a savage block on the thrower, slamming Griffeciel to the turf in a crumpled mass of flailing arms and kicking legs. Then, to stop all the squeaking, she followed up with a stamp to the gut.
The crowd roared in approval, but another sound echoed around the Sanger: the trill of the ref’s whistle. An impressive Ogre known for tolerating no dissent, she came jogging over, brandishing a red card and pointing.
Jacyntha looked around, wondering if someone was standing behind her.
“Nice play-acting,” the Ogre boomed before beckoning the Skitteringi medical staff onto the pitch. “Early clean up for you.”
Jacyntha pointed to own chest. “Me?”
“Are you engaging in dissent?” The Ogre’s face cracked into a menacing smile.
“Ref, it was me!” Ellpay said.
“Nice try, thinking to protect your star thrower from the consequences of her actions. Another word from you, though, and you’ll get a red for dissent.”
“But she did do it,” Jacyntha protested. “It wasn’t me!”
A big meaty hand shot out and grabbed Jacyntha’s shoulder pad. Reflexes kicked in; she twisted sideways, planted a foot behind the Ogre’s leg, and drove her opposing shoulder into the Ogre’s stomach … to no effect. Instead of pitching over Jacyntha’s leg onto her back, the Ogre stood as firm as a mountain. Then she grinned and swung her giant fist.
“You told me you’d wiped the slate clean!”
Cassandra Thordwall pointed down onto the pitch from her owner’s box. Her invitee, Eguardo Giamucci, stood at the rail gawking. He stammered, “I … I …”
“At every turn, you bastards have been thwarting me!”
“Hey, I don’t know what’s going on!” he protested.
“It was as clear as day! The ref’s red-carded the wrong player!”
“Okay, okay! Calm down!”
“Calm down? She’s our best player!” Thordwall yelled. “That’s it, I’m done with playing by your rules. I’m going to sort this out myself.”
“Hang on, Cassandra, wait!”
The genuine distress in his voice gave her pause. Smouldering, she glared at him but gave him the chance to say whatever it was he wanted to blurt out. He held up two knobby fingers. “Two things: one, trashing the league office ain’t exactly playing by our rules; two, it ain’t the league what’s behind this!”
“Umberto told me the Assassins’ Guild wouldn’t meet with him,” she snarled. “That smells like the league to me.”
“Nah! Look, if one team wants into the final more and channels a transaction to the refs, that’s of no never mind to the league. We ain’t behind it.”
“Well then, who is?” Despite herself, it came out in a yell.
She didn’t really expect an answer. And she really didn’t expect an answer from the person who gave it to her.
“Don’t let that damned rat-thing score!”
A scabby sewer-slipper was hanging back from the mass of players between it and the end zone, waiting for an opening.
“Hold the line!” Anahuark yelled.
The Militantes were nine against ten now after Ell and Jacyntha had been sent off, and after Griffeciel had been carried off. The Xonyxas were too few to attack the Skitteringi flanks so they had to keep compact and react to any Rodentien thrust. Skitteringi striker, Abscès Ezqueek, leapt forward and blocked Qispi. Her sister dragged Ezqueek down with her but a hole had opened. The sewer-slipper sprang forward, scurrying right over Qispi and Ezqueek, dodged past a lunging Anahuark, and scampered into the end zone.
The Ebolicorum Skitteringi went up 1-0 early in the semi-final.
“I am behind it, Cassandra.”
Queen Beatriz swept into the box, past the steward who bowed and held open the door. She was all flounce and grace today, having eschewed the leathers and breeks she usually wore when dealing with pirates. She was followed by a tall, handsome, richly dressed man with chestnut-coloured locks flowing to his shoulders. He had a proud face with clean-shaven cheeks but also a moustache wider than his head. Duc Tancred de Baston was the last of the trio to enter.
Thordwall looked on, surprised. Giamucci looked genuinely stunned but he quickly recovered his wits. “Hey! You can’t barge in here! Not even if you’re royalty!”
Queen Beatriz looked askance at the spice merchant and said, “Should you not get down on one knee?”
Thordwall tapped an indignant Giamucci on the shoulder to draw his attention away from the Queen but it didn’t work. He carried on, “If we were in Mytilan, sure, but this here’s an owner’s box in a land that doesn’t have a queen, so no. And what’s more, it’s reserved for owners, right?” Then, turning to Duc Tancred, he clarified, “And when I say owners, I mean the owners of the team currently playing. This isn’t an Imperials’ game, Tancred. I was lucky enough to have Cassandra invite me; you weren’t!”
Thordwall tugged his forearm and said, “Eguardo!” just as the duke retorted, “I was invited, Eguardo. And thou must needs do me the honour of my title, spice merchant.”
“Whaddya mean you were invited?” He turned to Thordwall, “You didn’t invite him, did you?”
“No …” She tried to explain but he went off again.
“See, you’ve gotta be an owner or get invited by an owner, am I right?”
Thordwall stepped between him and the new arrivals, “Queen Beatriz is an owner.”
His jaw dropped open. “Huh? She is?”
“Yes. She’s a minority owner of the Militantes.”
Giamucci fell silent. His eyes narrowed as he quite obviously thought through the implications of what she had said. The three nobles awaited a better welcome so Thordwall provided it. She bowed and gestured to the two high-backed chairs at the front, overlooking the pitch. Your Majesties, please sit.” She asked the steward to serve mulled wine and fetch more chairs.
“Who’re you?” Giamucci asked, rudely, of the moustached man. If Thordwall knew one thing about the Wharf Rats’ owner, it was he could do maths; if there were more than one monarch, and if Duc Tancred de Baston wasn’t one of them, then the third person had to be a king. If she could guess who this was, so could Giamucci.
King Carles the Fourth or more commonly known as Carles le Vorace or Charlie the Voracious.
King Carles sneered at Giamucci and pushed past the Wharf Rats’ owner to take the seat beside Beatriz. He asked in a rich baritone that dripped arrogance, “Which one’s my betrothed?”
“Hang on!” Giamucci said, returning to the words that had interrupted his discussion with Thordwall about the league not having a fix in on the Militantes. “Am I to understand you bribed the ref to make calls against your own team?”
Queen Beatriz smiled. “No, just calls against my rebellious daughter. I don’t see her, Carles. Cassandra, would you enlighten us?”
Thordwall, confounded in the face of this new turn of events, sighed and said, “The ref just gave her a red card and knocked her out.”
“Good. Just what I wanted. You see, Carles, she’ll not be back on the football pitch to perform like a dancing bear for the commoners ever again. Her playing days are over.”