31: “I’m not going back.”

The Story So Far

The last game of the regular season for the Mytilan Militantes has arrived. We follow our old friends Hansi the stevedore and his cousin Nykal as they attend the game against the Imperials. The fans protest violently at the very beginning of the event as the stadium crier reads out the team lists and it dawns on everyone that the Imperials are fielding a weakened squad. Jacyntha riles up her sisters for the game but hears Coach Karsgaard tell Umberto that the situation smells of corruption and that league Officer for Conduct Rennigan Slythe will pin blame on him. The game plays out as Hansi fears, though Nykal appreciates the way the Militantes play footy and he is well-pleased by the 2-0 victory for the team of Xonyxas.

After the game, the Militantes join a crowd that gathers on a terraza surrounding the citadel. There they await the arrival of pigeons bearing news of the results of the two games played on Decision Day over on Halos across the straits. Hanging in the balance are: the order of the top three positions; and, which two of the Skitteringi, Mongrels, and Militantes would make the play-offs.

The pigeon arrives and the flags start going up the citadel’s flagpole representing the teams’ final positions in the standings. First to appear is the Skitteringi’s, meaning they had defeated the Quarrels and taken first place. Then come the flags of the Imperials and those same Quarrels, meaning they had taken second and third positions respectively. Then the fourth flag rises, denoting the last team to have made the play-offs. Upon seeing the banner, Jacyntha weeps.

Like anything involving fallible mortals, in the celebrations following the unveiling of the flags atop the citadel on Isla Ísquita’s high hill, league officials forgot to ensure the team banners on the Monumento de los Aspirantes got promptly updated, informing the wider population of who had made the play-offs. After a short bout of public disorder, the SSFL rectified the situation.

“I’m not going back.”

Jacyntha planted her fists on her hips, trying to project the image of a determined footy player. Such pretences were becoming easier and easier to pull off. Indeed, they were feeling less and less like pretences at all.

“Don’t be daft, daughter. Of course you are.” Her mother’s cabin on board her flagship was large enough for a small table and chair as well as the bunk. Indeed, there was ample space for two chairs but someone had decided only one would be necessary, the high-backed one with armrests upon which Mytilan’s monarch sat.

What maddened Jacyntha the most wasn’t either her mother’s negation of her statement or denial of Jacyntha’s vision of her own future, it was the tone: matter-of-fact, casual, so self-evident that only a child wouldn’t understand. “Mother, I’m happy.”

“That’s not what Huaco-chic’ya says.”

Our apothecary?

This news caught Jacyntha off-guard. “What do you mean? You spoke to our team’s medical staff?”

Her mother chuckled at that. “Oh Jacyntha, dear, it’s so amusing you put it that way. She’s one of my court physicians! Of course I spoke to her. Listen, back in the summer, when Thordwall requested additional help, I asked for volunteers from the Corps of Physicians to come here and minister to you and your teammates. She was kind enough to implement up her sovereign’s wishes. So, yes, before she left, I did speak to her. I asked that she take particular care of you. So you see how much I love you? But she remains a member of my household staff. She always was. She has sent me regular updates as I commanded.”

“Huaco-chic’ya was your spy?”

That came out with less control than Jacyntha had intended. She took a deep breath to hold her anger in check.

“Don’t be absurd, darling, there was never any subterfuge. If Mistress Thordwall didn’t think to tell you all the nature of our arrangement, you can hardly blame me and then call it spying.” Her mother grew sterner. “Trust me, I know how to mount a campaign of espionage should I so wish.”

Having made her point, the Queen softened again, transforming back from sovereign to mother. She stood and came around the table to take her daughter’s hand. “Huaco-chic’ya wrote that you were distraught over some boy, then crushed over the death of your friend, and then angry at the entire world. I was worried about your happiness and feared for your life. I never hesitated to bring across the full strength of my navy so you would be safe from assassination in your last games.

“But now it’s time to set aside trivial endeavours,” Beatriz continued. “If you’re determined to assume such absurd risks, then at least assume them in the name of Mytilan.”

Jacyntha was aghast. “I am! We’re the Mytilan Militantes. Mytilan’s in our name!”

“You took our city’s name but your team has little to do with us. To preserve our city, our people must repel incursions by Exotherms and Havoc Warriors. They confront Orcs in our jungle. They fight to maintain our independence from men-folk who would subsume us. None of that involves running after a ball for the entertainment of anyone willing to shell out a few coppers. It’s beneath your dignity, Jacyntha. You’re coming home.”

“But …”

“No ‘buts’ my daughter. Huaco-chic’ya’s account of Ocllo’s murder was horrific. That assassin could have attacked you. What a stupid, stupid way to die! It’s what resolved me to come fetch you home. Was I not a loving mother and gracious queen to wait for your season to end? You’ve had your fun but it’s time to set aside such frivolities.”

“The season isn’t over, mother! We made the play-offs! There could be another three games left for us.”

“My agreement with Mistress Thordwall was for a season. A season is eight games. You’ve played your eight games. And no, the Militantes won’t make the play-offs.”

“But we already did!”

“Through match-fixing! A complaint is going before the league. You’ll be docked points. Your season is over, girl.”

The grip on Jacyntha’s hand became vice-like. “Enough! It is decided. Besides, it’s too late now anyway.” Indeed, as if timed for that precise instant, the trimaran rocked and shifted, bobbing free of its mooring.

Jacyntha yelled. “The ship’s under way!” Despite her mother’s strong grip, Jacyntha had become stronger over the past few months. She yanked her hand free and dashed to the cabin’s door, only to find it locked. She spun back to face her mother and, instead, saw the Queen again: a queen holding up an iron key.

“Locked,” Beatriz said. “More important matters than your whims are at play here. You’ve always been jealous of your sister’s destiny, wanting to be the hero on the dais receiving the adulation of everyone around you. If you couldn’t be queen, you’d enter the Queensguard and become its most accomplished warrior … only you hadn’t the talent. So then you run off to perform like a dancing bear in front of thousands of low-life spectators.

“Well, I finally figured out a way to make you happy and happy you shall be. You’re to be a queen in your own right.”

Jacyntha’s jaw dropped open. Her next words came out in a panicked rush. “Nothing’s happened to Jasmine?”

“No. Of course not.”

She grasped for understanding and failed. “She’s set aside her rights as your heir?”

“Jacyntha dear, you really are dull-witted at times! No, she will reign in Mytilan when her time comes. But your time shall come quicker, I think. You are to be Queen of Chivalria.”

Given Jacyntha’s jaw was already hanging open, all she could do was shut her mouth and hiss between clenched teeth. “What?

“It’s been agreed between myself and the King’s uncle, Duc Tancred de Baston. Two months from now you’re to marry Carles the Fourth.” Her mother leaned forward and kissed Jacyntha on the cheek.

“We’ll have you on the throne by mid-summer. Of course, there is the little matter of having to fight a war first.”

“The rat’s in the rat hole!”

Hands grabbed Neuvil’s tunic and hauled him off the chaise longue. He slapped the hands away and blinked against the light that lanced his eyeballs. The hands let go and he thumped to the floor, whereupon he found the energy to groan.

“I’ve been looking for you, Karsgaard. What in the world are you doing spending your nights here at Nytmir’s flat? Don’t claim you’ve been working, now, though I know you Militantes collaborate all too often with your opponents. Hmm, but could that be the reason? I have a hunch, though. You’ve been frequenting Nytmir because she’s got rat-root, is that not so?”

Slythe.

“Can you not knock?” he roared.

“Come now, Karsgaard. Of course I knocked. You didn’t bother answering, is all. Too busy sleeping one off, so it seems. Nytmir couldn’t open up seeing as she’s off at practice. Now get up. You’re coming down the league office to answer a few questions.”

“I am not going anywhere with you, Rennigan. And am I wrong in thinking Queen Beatriz got the Hierarchs’ assurances that the Militantes would be free of your meddling?”

Their meddling, Karsgaard. Not mine. And besides, the league governors have a fishy result on their hands and it just so happens you’ve got a past record of arranging fishy results. And it also just so happens, the Queen and her fleet weighed anchor yesterday afternoon. So the governors rediscovered their balls and approved me asking you a few questions.”

Neuvil put a hand to his aching head and managed to scramble back up onto the chaise longue. “If you have questions, put them to me here. I am not going with you to any league office or someplace else I might disappear.”

“Now, now, that isn’t fair! What kind of man do you take me for?” Slythe was bigger even than Neuvil himself and he stood looming, his bald head nigh on touching the wooden beams holding aloft the ceiling. He twirled the end of his moustache between his index finger and thumb, as though contemplating how to weave it into a noose. “How’d you convince the duke to field a weakened team?”

“Huh?”

“Oh, come on Karsgaard. Don’t take me for a fool.”

“Why not? Only a fool would tattoo a bleeding wound onto his throat.”

Slythe smirked. “Ah, a memento from my playing days! It serves to remind people I don’t mess around. Maybe you’d like to see it again?” He reached up to pull down the high collar on his tunic.

“Keep your clothes on, Rennigan. I know you like me but I can assure you, it is an unrequited like.”

“So tell me about the duke. Did you break him under torture after you kidnapped him? Or maybe it was bribery?”

“He did not look like a tortured man sipping his drinks and toasting people’s good health two days ago. If you are so worried about the behaviour of his team, why do you not ask him?”

“I don’t think so, Karsgaard. I’m enjoying myself too much. So much so that I really must insist we carry on our little chat down at the league’s offices.” He whistled and his hired muscle barged into Nytmir’s flat.

In the face of the prospect of three big men pummelling him, Neuvil couldn’t see any option but to cooperate.

He got up and followed Slythe into a bright autumn day.

“Where’s Neuvil?”

Umberto looked around as though expecting Coach Karsgaard to appear out of thin air. “He isn’t with you?” Karolyse asked. In the absence of their coach and captain, she had gotten her sisters to warm up and work on their ball handling.

Umberto made an exaggerated motion of looking to his left, right, and behind before responding. “Don’t look like it, do it?”

“What’re we to do?”

“You’re big girls. Figure something out. I’ll try and track him down.” He turned to head back to his waiting mateo but then suddenly stopped. “Where’s Jacyntha?”

“We thought she was with Coach Karsgaard,” Karolyse replied.

He furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Practice the grab and pull once you’re done with the ball control drills.”

He returned to his mateo and headed down towards the Bridge of a Hundred Arches thinking that life was about to get complicated.

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