Episode 1

Ten Months Hence

This assassin’s an idiot.

Umberto’s own training would have prevented him from the “I got you now” smirk. 

The thought flashed through his mind, then the night became nothing but action and reaction; training and restraining; there and avoid the thereafter.

The dagger in the assassin’s right hand stabbed forward but Umberto anticipated the attack. He pivoted and grabbed the thrusting arm. He spun, using the attacker’s momentum against her. He drove the Dark Elf into the alleyway’s frost-encrusted stone wall. Her head smacked against the stone, dislodging a cake of ice, and she wobbled. Umberto didn’t have time to gloat.

He only had time to dive out of the way.

A crossbow bolt whistled through the space he had vacated and took the Dark Elf in the gut. She wheezed and bent double overtop the quarrel’s protruding butt.

Get clear! Movement beats enemies!

That’s what they’d taught him in Ludwigsburg: get clear, move, make the adversary react. He scrambled down the alleyway, zig-zagging. He kept a hand on one wall of the alleyway or the other to keep his feet from slipping out from under him. They’d have someone waiting at the far end, where Callejón de los Sicarios gave onto Plaza de los Ángeles, so he zigged when he should have zagged and threw himself against the one door along the laneway he knew wouldn’t be bolted at this time of night. He crashed into Zara’s kitchen, tumbling onto the floor. 

He heard more crossbow bolts slam into the stone around the threshold.

Two snipers?! How many Elven bastards am I up against?

He kicked the door closed, scrambled to his feet, and used a wooden butcher’s block to brace the door. Then he raced through Zara’s.

¡Hola Mónica!” he blurted out as he darted through the parlour. Thankfully the front door was open as Lysette shouldered a fur-lined cape and passed out into the cold, sleet-filled night. Umberto followed, bursting through the threshold and giving the woman a fright. He called out, “Stay inside with Mónica!”

It made more sense to turn right, heading up Calle de la Sierra, but his Ludwigsburg training kicked-in. He turned left, then up. He climbed, foot pushing against slippery window sill, hand grabbing damp, protruding beam, other hand grasping frigid water spout. He fell back to the window sill as a patch of ice gave way from the gutter. His left foot slid but he caught hold of the iron grating covering the window, stifling a cry of pain as something pointy raked itself across the palm of his hand. But he didn’t fall. He steadied himself and looked up again.

With the layer of ice gone from where he’d reached up before, he reckoned he’d be able to get a proper handhold now. He’d have to do the climb one-handed unless he wanted to leave bloody hand-marks. He heard thumping foot-falls coming from inside Zara’s, so up he scrambled, his injured hand clasped tight but using his fist to prop himself off the window frame. He reached up to the water spout and this time his hand didn’t slip away. He heaved himself over the lip of the eaves of the tiled rooftop. It was wet and cold, the freezing rain having formed a thin layer of ice upon which ran rivulets of bitterly cold run-off. He slithered over to the protruding bulk of the chimney and crouched in its shadow, gasping for breath. Despite the cold and the damp, he was sweating like a boar.

He heard barked orders echo from the other side of the building, from the laneway where they’d attacked him. The voices were indistinct, unrecognizable. But then from below he heard someone say, in Martispeak, “I swear I saw him come out that there door and go running this way.”

“What is this report you recount? Towards Rincón Kysha, you say? But that would be so unwise.

The words triggered recognition. It also triggered confusion.

What the …?

Unforeseen enemies were coming at him from unexpected angles.

How many league governors want me dead?

Umberto glanced left and right, trying to detect someone, anyone, who might be coming to kill him.

He hadn’t thought to look up into the night sky. If he had, what came next wouldn’t have caught him by surprise.

Xonyxas players

I

“It’s lovely bullshit sentiment!”

Umberto obviously hadn’t expected her reply and clearly he didn’t like it. He frowned and ridges formed across his forehead. He pulled his coat tight against the late winter wind and pursed his lips. “C’mon boss,” he said. “They got us to the final. They damned near won the final. We’ve a good core. A full season with me and they’ll be more than just good.”

Cassandra Thordwall, the erstwhile pirate Pillaging Peggy and now the respected owner of the Mytilan Militantes, stopped walking and faced her former bodyguard. Her current bodyguard, Yekko, another of her former pirates, stopped beside them and scanned the plaza for threats. Yekko was small but she was as quick as she was ruthless. Thordwall was glad of Yekko’s vigilance, she was up to no good and some people might know she was up to no good.

“Yes, we keep the core together, but we have to kick on. Standing still’s falling back. Look at the Quarrels, they’re heading to the Twin Seas Super Cup without a true star to replace Pierce Rosethorn. They’ll get hoisted on the yard. We have to improve the squad. So, I tell you now, being loyal to the players is nothing but bullshit sentiment.”

“There’s alchemy in the squad.” Umberto looked like he was losing his cool despite the frigid wind. Winter in Guayamartí wasn’t like it was along the Frozen Sea, more rain or sleet than snow, but damned if it wasn’t a nasty, grey, chilly thing. “They each know their role and they execute it. They work hard, see, they listen … except for Ellpay, maybe … they play for each other. They’d give their hearts for your team.”

“There you go again, my big ol’ romantic! Okay, hear me out and then tell me I’m wrong.”

He bit his lip as though he wanted to gainsay her but he nodded.

“Qispi.”

“What about her?”

“You say they know their roles. What’s Qispi’s?”

“Tackler.”

“Belyna?”

“Hitter.”

“Anahuark?”

“Leader.”

“How long would it take you to turn Qispi into a tackling hitter? Or to turn Belyna into a hitting leader? Or Ana into a leading tackler?”

He shrugged and pulled his tricorn down his brow to shield his eyes from a sudden shower of horizontal sleet. A tricorn! Before becoming a footy coach, he would have worn a woollen tocado like a stevedore.

Or like an assassin turned pirate turned bodyguard.

Thordwall gave a shiver despite her oiled-leather cloak and pulled its fur-lined cowl over her head as she awaited his answer. It finally came: “Dunno. Maybe by the end of pre-season. Perhaps two or three games in.”

“Three games is a quarter of the season my old friend. Now, how long would it take you to turn Qispi into a tackling, hitting leader?”

“She’s not a natural leader,” he grumbled.

“So you couldn’t do it?”

“Maybe I could, boss. If she matures this season, plays well, gains confidence. Who knows? She might be your captain in five years.”

“So you can’t do it. Not this season, at any rate.” She held up her gloved index finger. “What if I can get us a tackling, hitting leader right now?”

Umberto glowered at her.

Throwing back her head and yelling at the grey clouds scudding across the sky, she cried, “I can’t believe I’m arguing with my head coach about wanting to invest more gold in the team!”

She turned to Yekko. “Good to go?”

Yekko nodded. Thordwall resumed walking, letting her bodyguard take the lead as they headed for Avenida de los Mercaderes.

Umberto fell in beside her. “Who’re you negotiating with?”

“A tackling, hitting leader who’s a stand-out player in the league.”

“Our league?”

She nodded. “Proven talent.”

“And you won’t give me a name?”

“As I recall, you resigned as Thane of Player Personnel.” He huffed. “Umberto, remember what’s happened to us in less than a year. We had a head coach fall into a rat-root habit that led him to abduction and ritual sacrifice, we had a player murdered on the playing field, we had our star player kidnapped by her own mother … and speaking of kidnapping, we sequestered the owner of a rival team ourselves for good measure. If anyone grabs you and puts you to the question, I don’t want you spilling any names.”

“I can handle myself.”

She shot him a knowing smile.

Umberto grumbled, “You’re not working through Grimmy Grimejacket, are you? That slimy Goblin agent can’t be trusted. Take it from me. I know! He’s my agent.”

She couldn’t help but chuckle. “No, the player I have my eye on wouldn’t stoop to having Grimmy as an agent.”

“Ow! Nice slap in the face, boss.” They walked on across a cobbled plaza, Umberto obviously thinking. “It’s not Relámpago Flash? We’ve got enough catchers.”

“Not one like her!” Thordwall replied. Then, seeing his reaction, she added, “No, no, not Flash. She’s too … flashy. And no more guesses. You’ll find out in due course.”

“Well, if you’re not working through Grimmy, then he’s gonna get his hat in a knot, see. He might make things tricky for us.”

“I can handle Grimejacket. Or better yet, Yekko can.”

Her new bodyguard, leading the way, heard and snorted over the shoulder.

They came to The Quarterdeck, the finest wine lounge in the Merchant Quarter. Thordwall paused at the threshold, allowing Yekko to check out the stairwell leading up from street level. The pause also allowed her a last word with her head coach.

“I’m bringing in talent, Umberto. Runners-up isn’t the extent of my ambition. I’m going to take this team to the next level and I’ll be damned if our old adversary Eguardo Giamucci, or Grimmy Grimejacket, or the Dark Elf god of death herself gets in my way.”

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