Snippet – The Sports Captain’s Tale

21 Nov

A novella for Fantastic Schools. Comments welcome.

Prologue

I’d like to tell you about the time I scored the winning goal in a crucial game that made me the single most famous sportsman in the history of sportsmen.

Actually, I’d love to tell you about it, but I’m not allowed.  Lady Lamplighter, the editor of this tome, made it clear I wasn’t allowed to tell you about my goal, even though it would make me the greatest of the greatest of the greats.  She seems to think it would be bragging – imagine, me bragging – and said that if I tried to tell everyone about it she’d turn me into a pig.  So I’m not allowed to tell you about my goal …

… Or about the time I won a honour duel with a silly bugger who was too busy posturing for the audience I had all the time in the world to cast a fall-down charm on his pants and then hit him with a force punch …

… Or about the time I took a penalty kick that accidentally on purpose hit the goalie in the face …

… And I’m certainly not allowed to tell you I really am the greatest sportsman in the history of the world, with an ego to match …

Oink.  Oink.  Oink.

Yuk.  Don’t ever let anyone turn you into a pig.  Really.  Do you know what pigs eat?

She made it clear.  I’m not allowed to lie.  (I didn’t.)  I’m not allowed to exaggerate.  (As if!)  I just have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  (I’m not going to get far.)  And if I don’t listen to her I’ll be going straight back to the pigsty.

But you know what?  I am a great sportsman.  And that is the naked truth.

My father was a storekeeper in Dragon’s Den.  We have very little in common, beyond stubbornness and a complete and absolute loathing of those who don’t get what they have on merit.  We fought like cats and dogs as I got older, because he expected me to knuckle down and work in his store and I wanted to play games.  I was good at it, too.  I played football in the streets, with all the other children and apprentices, and despite my youth I was pretty damn good.  Was it so wrong I wanted to make a career of it?

It wasn’t impossible.  Sure, only the commonest louts played street games – that was what our betters said, at least – but there were games one could make a killing, if one was actually good.  Jousting?  I knew the stories of men who made their fortunes, charging around on horseback and mock-fighting their opponents; it wasn’t impossible, I told myself, that I’d have a chance to enter a jouster’s retinue and work my way up from there.  Or I could move to a city and enter the arena, fighting my way to the top.  It was possible …

Dad didn’t think so.  Jousting teams recruited from the nobility, first and foremost, and we weren’t noble.  Anyone could enter the arena, by contest, but the odds of winning one’s first fight were actually pretty low.  I might die, he pointed out, in my very first fight.  We fought a lot over that, too.  I could have a pretty good life, he insisted, if I worked in the store and inherited it after him.  But I wanted to reach the top.

And then my magic came in.

I was lucky.  I won a scholarship to Whitehall.  (Dad was so proud.)  I started lessons … and got distracted, almost at once, when I realised there were magic games to play.  I joined them all and worked hard, once again, to be the best.  Ken, BattleBorne, Kingmaker, Transfiguration Transfigures … I won’t say it was easy, because it wasn’t, but I did well.  My marks suffered accordingly, but I didn’t care.  For the first time, my dream of fame and fortune looked within my grasp.

The old Grandmaster hadn’t given two forged coins for international sporting events.  There were some teachers who thought differently, but they had to do it on their own time.  The only sporting contest he supported was BattleBorne and even then, it had more to do with military training than our international standing.  The new Grandmaster – Gordian – was different.  He decided we were going to return to the big leagues.  And then …

… There was one hell of a scandal.

The funny thing is, no one would have batted an eyelid if they’d been cheating to win.  Not really.  Everyone would have understood that, even if they had to pretend otherwise.  But she was cheating to lose and THAT WAS UNFORGIVABLE.  I mean … really?  It’s one thing to be a cheat if you’re trying to win, but fucking over your own team?  And there was a naked girl involved … by some curious alchemy, that became more important than the cheating scandal itself.  Go figure.

I’m sure Gordian would have tried to cover it up, if he could, but … like I said, naked girl.  It wasn’t possible.  The cheat landed in deep shit and everything else was thoroughly shaken up.  All the old teams were commanded to hold new try-outs, and quickly, before we returned to the league.  I wasn’t too worried, at least at first.  I was top of the lists, a jack-of-all-games who happened to be master-of-all.  No one in their right mind would kick me off the team unless I really stepped over the line.  I swaggered down to the plotting room with nary a care in the world.  The team captain – Blair, of some obscure and probably fictional house – wasn’t going to give me the boot.  Of course not.  It was absurd.

And the very first thing he said to me was …

“You’re off the team.”

What?

Chapter One

“What?”

I had never liked Blair.  He was an aristo with magic who also had the nerve to be pretty good at sports.  And he was dashingly handsome into the bargain.  But I’d never considered him an idiot.  No one who’d led two teams – Ken and BattleBorne – to the top of the sporting tables could possibly be an idiot.  But …

“Kai, you’re off the team,” Blair repeated.  He waved a hand, dismissively.  “You may go.”

I was too stunned to be angry.  “But … why?”

“I need a team I can take to the big tournament,” Blair said.  “You’re not on the list.”

“But …”  I saw the paper on his desk and snatched it up.  Seven active players, seven reserve players, a planning coach … I knew them all well enough to pick out the one thing they had in common.  Half of them were magical aristocracy, the other half were related to mundane aristocrats.  There were no commoners.  “You picked them because of their blood?”

Blair reddened.  “I picked them because of their skills,” he snapped.  “Or are you daring to suggest they’re lacking?”

I glowered, then ran my eye down the list.  Alyx – his planning coach – had no real sporting skills worth a damn, but she was a very good strategist and as long as she didn’t take the field herself she’d be fine.  Blair wasn’t fool enough to insist she tried, when he needed her operating behind the scenes.  It was a gamble, but unless he got very unlucky the odds were firmly in his favour.  Probably.  The rest … they weren’t bad players, I conceded ruefully, but they weren’t the best of the best.  The only thing they had in their favour was …

“You’re picking players because their parents can sponsor the team?”  It was hard to keep the shock out of my voice.  I’d always known there were more politics in sports than anyone wanted, and there were a bunch of teams funded by the great and the good, but this was insane.  “The team will be the best-looking bunch of losers on the field!”

“If we don’t look good, no one will take us seriously,” Blair snapped back.  “Do you think we can take the field in second-hand crap?”

I glared.  I’d worked my ass off, each and every summer, to earn money to buy sporting supplies, but half my gear was still second hand.  At best.  It was still in good condition – I wouldn’t have taken it onto the field if it wasn’t – but it made me look shabby and poor.  I’d been taunted by a particularly obnoxious aristocrat until I’d planted my fist in his mouth.  It had been so worth it.

“The team must have the best,” Blair said.  “The best players, the best outfits, the best chance …”

“Shame about the captain,” I jeered.  It was probably a bad idea, but Blair wasn’t likely to change his mind.  No team captain could afford to look indecisive.  The player rosters were probably already being posted, even as we spoke.  He hadn’t even considered I might try to change his mind.  “Shouldn’t you resign in favour of someone who actually knows what he’s doing?”

Blair stiffened.  I saw magic crackling around his fingers and braced myself.  He was a good fighter, but so was I.  Let him throw the first hex.  I’d throw the last one.  The days when I’d been a firstie innocently trying to join a team composed of older and stronger players were long gone.  And if Blair got his face smashed by me …

His position would become untenable, I thought.  Probably.  What’ll he do then?

“I’m not going to take advice from someone who thinks the team can’t romp to victory without him,” Blair snarled, finally.  I was impressed he didn’t start hurling hexes.  Or curses.  I would have been more impressed if he’d picked his team for their skills rather than their family connections.  “Now, get out.  I have work to do.”

My anger flared.  “You have to get the team through the local tournaments first,” I said, sharply.  “You haven’t won yet!”

Blair snorted.  “What are you going to do about it?  Put your own team together and kick our asses?”

“Yes,” I said.  It was hardly the first time my temper had gotten me into trouble.  I’d been lucky not to be expelled for striking an upper-class student who’d talked down to me.  “I’ll put together my own team!”

“With booze and hookers?”  Blair laughed.  “Good luck.  All the decent players are already taken.”

I clenched my fists, then calmed myself and swept out the door, slamming it behind me.  The bastard was still laughing.  I forced myself to think as I strode down the corridor to the common room, where all the announcements were posted.  Blair wasn’t the only team captain with dreams of winning the big international tournament, which meant he’d have to lead his team to victory against local challengers first.  He was half-right, I supposed.  The players who loved BattleBorne to the exclusion of all others had already been snapped up, but there were others.  I could still put together a team.  And then I could wipe that smug look off his face.

The lists were longer than I’d expected, seven teams in all.  Some names surprised me … although, after a moment, I realised they shouldn’t.  BattleBorne was the one sport in which we were competitive, at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned.  The odds of victory – or at least fame – were consequently higher.  I scanned them quickly, working out how the tournament would have to be organised.  They’d be at least five or six rounds to sort the men from the boys, then select the final winner.  I silently checked the listed names against my mental roster, then used a quick spell to locate my first potential players.  They’d been on the team before Blair had kicked them off, damn him.  It didn’t look as if they’d been snapped up by anyone else yet.

“Kai,” Mark said, when I tapped on their bedroom door and stepped inside.  “Did you get the boot too?”

“Yes,” I said, curtly.  Mark and James had been friends for years.  They’d practically grown up together.  If they hadn’t been so different – Mark was tall and thin, with dark skin and darker eyes; James was short, bulky, and so pale he looked like someone from the pole – I’d have wondered if they were brothers.  “Blair kicked me out.”

“Typical,” James said.  They might have been born magical – their parents had magic, as had their grandparents – but they were still commoners to Blair.  “You think we should join another team?”

“I think we should make our own team,” I said, quickly.  We might be able to join other teams, but it was unlikely.  The captains would wonder if Blair had sent us to spoil their chances of victory.  It had happened before.  “If you two sign up, we only need four more.”

“What, no reservists?”  Mark looked as if he was thinking about it.  “If one of us gets taken off the team, we’re fucked.”

I shrugged.  “If we win, we can recruit reservists before we go to the international tournament.  If we lose, we’re fucked anyway.”

“Always knew you were into the weird stuff,” James teased.  “The odds are shitty …”

“Never tell me the odds,” I said, firmly.  James was right – they were shitty – but it didn’t matter.  I knew the other teams.  I knew their strengths and weaknesses.  “They’ll think we’re losers.  They won’t take us seriously until it’s too late.”

The thought made me angry once again.  I didn’t mind losing a fair match – if you’ve played sports as long as I have, losing a few … dozen … matches is inevitable – but being denied the chance to play because of an accident of birth was intolerable.  Blair could have been forgiven for promoting better players above me, yet … I forced myself to calm down.  I needed four more players or my plan wouldn’t so much as get off the ground.

Mark and James exchanged glances.  “If you can get four more, we’re in,” Mark said, finally.  “If.”

“Yeah,” I said.  In theory, you could field a team of one.  In practice, not a chance.  I considered it anyway, just to be perverse, then shook my head.  The slightest misstep would result in public humiliation and – worse – defeat.  “I’ll let you know what happens.”

The thought nagged at my mind as I made my way through the dorms.  There were no shortage of younger students who’d be glad of the chance to get on the team, but they’d be worse than useless.  The stories of little firsties joining a team and completely dominating players six years older than them were nonsensical.  It didn’t happen.  They were so outmatched … no firstie, not even the young Lady Emily, could hope to take on an older student on equal terms.  I needed third years, at the very least.  They were in short supply. 

I spotted Bill and Karen arguing tactics and hurried over to join them.  They’d both tried out for the teams, back before the scandal.  They hadn’t done badly either.  They’d just been outmatched by older students.  I couldn’t be a chooser …

“Hey,” I said.  “Do you want to join my team?”

Karen blinked.  “What?”

I snorted and started to explain.  Karen and Bill listened carefully.  I saw the doubts in their eyes as I outlined what had happened, and what I planned to do.  The team could compensate for one third-year student, but two …?  It was going to be a challenge to get everyone working together, let alone everything else.  But giving up now would mean that Blair won …

Jerry joined us.  “I hear you’re looking for players?”

I glanced at him.  “You got kicked off your team too?”

“I was too close to Juliet,” Jerry said.  “She was the one who nominated me.  And then …”

“Ouch.”  I nodded in understanding.  “I have to ask … did you know about …?”

“No,” Jerry said.  “I still can’t believe it.”

I hesitated.  I hadn’t been able to believe it either.  And yet … it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the lad.  He hadn’t known what Juliet was doing, but it had still destroyed his chances of being on the winning team.  His captain had given him the boot through suspicion alone …

And if I give him a second chance, it might work out for me, I thought.  Jerry wasn’t the only student sportsman who’d been too close to Juliet.  He probably wasn’t the only one who’d been kicked off his team too.  He shouldn’t have his life destroyed because of someone else’s shitty behaviour.

“You can join us,” I said.  “Bill?  Karen?”

Karen looked doubtful.  “Can we win?”

“Of course.”  I puffed out my chest.  “There are no guarantees of anything, of course, but we will have a chance.  You have the best captain in the school and some of the best players right by your side.”

I winked.  “You’ll even have the chance to become captain when I graduate.”

Karen smiled.  I knew I had her.  If the team became established by the time I left, it would continue without me.  Karen would have an excellent chance of not only becoming captain, but taking the team to newer and greater heights.  The earlier she joined, the better her chances.  She’d have at least two years as captain before she had to graduate herself.

“I know that smile,” Bill teased.  “You want in, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Karen said.  “You?”

Bill said nothing for a long moment.  I could practically read his thoughts.  The game might be fun – and it was – but we could also lose, humiliatingly, if we took the field against a more experienced team.  I suspected he was having second or even third thoughts about joining up.  An established team might be able to compensate for his weaknesses and lack of experience.  We couldn’t do so well.

He took a breath.  “What happens if we lose?”

We become losers, I thought, crossly.  I liked to win.  There is nothing like the thrill of having people cheer your victory … nothing.  But the crowd is fickle and the admirers cheering you one day could easily become the assholes booing you the next.  And Blair will be laughing in my face for the rest of time.

“We gain experience,” I said, instead.  Bill wouldn’t be impressed by my sports obsession – or my conviction victory came before everything else.  “We may lose this year” – not if I could help it – “but we’ll learn the skills we need to win next year.”

Bill glanced at Karen, who nodded.  “Fine,” Bill said.  “Count me in.”

“And me,” Jerry said.

“Great.”  I let out a breath.  “I need one more.  If I find him, I’ll let you know.”

My mind raced, calculating the options, as I wandered the school.  The best players had already been snapped up.  Taking a younger player was asking for trouble – really, I was pushing the limits by recruiting both Bill and Karen.  There wasn’t anyone else who might be a capable player, not someone who hadn’t already been claimed … I cursed under my breath as I wandered past the defensive magic classrooms, frowning as I spotted Mildred sitting by herself.  She wasn’t someone I’d considered a potential player – she’d come very close to flunking defensive magic, which was practically a prerequisite for BattleBorne – but … I had to admit she was ingenious.  And cute.

She looked up at me as I entered the classroom.  “Go away.”

I held up my hands.  “Can I talk to you?  Please?”

Mildred scowled.  I glanced at her papers.  She was swotting hard, trying to get top marks in defensive charms … it clicked, suddenly.  Mildred was top of the class in theoretical magic, but right at the bottom when it came to practical spellcasting.  It wasn’t that she was bad at magic.  It was she had a nasty tendency to freeze when confronted with the unexpected and rarely recovered in time to save herself.

“I’m looking for players,” I said, and explained.  “Interested?”

“Get out of town,” Mildred said.  If anyone had ever wanted to say anything stronger, it was her right then.  “This isn’t funny.”

“It isn’t a joke,” I said. “I’m serious.”

Mildred glared.  I tried to see the world through her eyes.  She was unpopular and isolated and didn’t have any friends, at least as far as I knew.  She lacked the skills to make her peers like her, which meant she was the butt of far too many jokes and pranks, ranging from the nasty to the extremely nasty.  It might be better for her if she tried to emulate her peers, but … which one?  She didn’t have the ability to pull it off.

“I’m useless to you,” she said.  “I can’t cast spells fast enough …”

“You’re not useless,” I said.  An idea was starting to blossom.  “You just need practice.  A lot of practice.”

Mildred’s glare managed to grow worse.  Somehow.  “You think I don’t know it?”

“You also need people to practice with,” I said.  I tried to ignore the flicker of bitter yearning that crossed her face.  I’d had friends my entire life.  Mildred … she’d had none.  It was sheer luck she hadn’t found herself doing someone’s homework, just for a hint of the social contact she wanted and needed.  We all needed it.  “You could practice with us.”

Mildred opened her mouth, then stopped.  I waited, unsure what she was thinking.  She couldn’t have any illusions, not about why I was doing this.  I wanted something from her as much as she wanted something from me.  But … it would work out in her favour, if we helped her develop her spellcasting.  She wouldn’t have to come with us to the international  tournament.  Even if the team lost, she would still come out ahead …

… But would she see it like that?

“The last time I was invited to something, it was a joke,” Mildred said, finally.  The bitterness in her voice made me wince.  I’d heard rumours … not that I’d ever paid much attention to them.  Or Mildred herself, for that matter.  She just hadn’t been important to me.  “If this is a joke, I swear I’ll … I’ll do something horrible to you.”

“It isn’t a joke,” I said, crossing my heart.  The threat was laughable … but I wasn’t going to laugh.  If Mildred ever mastered spellcasting under pressure, she would be a dangerous opponent.  “I think we could both help each other.”

Mildred gave me a sharp look.  “I hope you’re not expecting me to turn into Juliet?”

I blinked.  Mildred hadn’t heard?  Or … did she even care?  It wasn’t as if Juliet had ever impinged on her life.  If I hadn’t been mad about sports, would I have cared?

“No,” I said.  “I’m expecting you to turn into a fine spellcaster.”

She snorted, but there was less conviction in it than I’d expected.  She had hope.

“Meet us in the training hall after dinner,” I told her, as I stepped back.  “We’ll run through a few basic exercises and then start training properly.”

Mildred swallowed.  “I’m really not very good at defensive magic.”

“We all have to start somewhere,” I told her.  “And practicing anything, anything at all, will make you better.”

“We have two weeks,” Mildred said.  “Is that enough?”

“Yeah,” I told her.  I pushed as much conviction as I could into my voice.  “Half of us are really very good.  The other half can be brought up to speed quickly and efficiently.  And then we’ll be ready to put on a show.”

And I hoped, as I made my way back downstairs, that I was right.

3 Responses to “Snippet – The Sports Captain’s Tale”

  1. Alejandro November 21, 2022 at 2:55 pm #

    Well, I don’t love sports, soooo

    • Fred Mora December 1, 2022 at 1:41 am #

      Same here. HOWEVER : This is not just some soccer game. This is a magical competition in the SIM world. It would be hard to make such a story boring. So go for it!

  2. Philip November 21, 2022 at 9:40 pm #

    I am not a great sports fan either – school cured me of that 🙂
    But I see that as being the fabric into which you could be weaving an interesting tale. So for me, on the positive side of maybe …

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