The Story So Far
It’s the semi-finals! Our old friends Hansi the Stevedore and his cousin Nykal, now devoted Militantes’ fans, wail as their team’s squib kick goes awry, bouncing off Qispi and into the claws of Uber-vermin Gnashnash Flailtail. The monster storms downfield, only Cuxi-Mikay between him and another Skitteringi touchdown. But Flailtail goes off-script, attacking the lone defender rather than scoring. His handlers try to pull him away from the Xonyxa, only angering him. He spikes the ball and charges his fellow Rodentiens, leading to the play of the match, when Cuxi-Mikay straight-arms a sewer-slipper to get the ball and executes an up-and-under despite a Rodentien hanging onto her. The Militantes get lucky, equalizing 1-1 at the half.
At half time, team owner Cassandra Thordwall gives a team talk, reminding her players that all championship teams need luck. Umberto says they’ve done well, tied at the half, receiving the kick-off, and only facing nine Rodentiens. The Militantes keep control of the ball and winnow the Skitteringi down further, knocking out Flailtail and a star striker. When the Rodentiens throw caution to the wind and charge Cuxi-Mikay, she hits a perfect squib kick and the Militantes score. They only face six Skitteringi for the final kick-off. The Xonyxas regain possession of the ball and score at the death. They’re going to the Blue Blood Cup Final.
“Where’s my daughter!?”
Cassandra Thordwall noted that Queen Beatriz, upon entering the Militantes’ dressing room, hadn’t directed the question at her, but instead, at the team physician, Huaco-chic’ya. That made sense; the doctor was a court physician on loan to the Militantes and thus Beatriz would have no doubts about where the woman’s loyalties lay. And, having treated Jacyntha after the referee had injured Beatriz’ daughter, the physician was best placed to know the answer.
Let’s hope that infernal Grimejacket has done his deed.
One by one the players realized who had intruded upon the wild abandon of their post-game celebration and went down on a knee, head bowed. The din died down in the same manner, little by little. Ellpay was the last to figure things out, busy as she was dancing with a mop and singing, “We’re gonna win the cup! We’re gonna win the cup!” Karolyse had to reach out and tap the catcher on the hip for the singing to stop. Only Anahuark remained standing, displaying her revolutionary bias.
“Greetings, Your Grace,” Huaco-chic’ya replied. “Princess Jacyntha is still recovering. Your Grace can find her through here.” She stepped back, bowing and gesturing with the sweep of an arm to the attached infirmary.
Queen Beatriz swept through the changing room and gave the players a passing, “Well played on the match, ladies. You have done Mytilan honour.” She merely deigned to flash Anahuark an arched eyebrow. Once she had freed up the entranceway, a pair of Queensguard became visible standing alert outside the changing room, in the Sanger’s main service hallway. Thordwall could sense resentment rise in her players; failure to qualify for the Queen’s corps of elite bodyguards was the reason these young Xonyxas had tried out for the Militantes.
The Queen paused to express concern over Pillcu’s injury before stopping in front of Karolyse and shaking her head, “You, my cousin-daughter, might reflect on whether a future duxa should be performing tricks for the masses like a common jester.”
Karolyse flashed her sovereign a broad smile. “I can assure Your Grace that around here, there’s nothing common about Jesters … but however remarkable, we already defeated them! But I thank Your Grace for the advice.”
At that, Thordwall hid her own smile from the Queen, though many of the players actually chuckled. Karolyse’s remark transformed resentment into a rising sense of pride and accomplishment. Beatriz harrumphed and carried on, gliding into the infirmary. The Queen’s voice floated back out of the room, “Where, exactly, am I to find my daughter?”
Huaco-chic’ya furrowed her brow, not understanding. Then her eyes flashed wide and she darted into the room. Thordwall heard her stammer something unintelligible, and then the physician came scurrying out again, looking around. “Where’s ’Cyntha?” The Xonyxas glanced from one to another, puzzled. The physician dashed back into the infirmary. They all heard her call back, “The door to the baths isn’t locked!” That got the Queensguard excited and one dashed through the changing room and into the infirmary to ensure Beatriz’ safety.
Anahuark, the team’s rebellious new captain, grinned and grabbed a towel. “Speaking of baths …” She crossed paths with Queen Beatriz just as the ruler was reemerging from the infirmary and said, “¡Viva la revolución!”
“Does ye needs another striker?”
“Leave off, Mik,” the Goblin, Grimmy Grimejacket, said. “She’s ain’t in no shape to recruit any body! Now youz just keep those legs pumpin’ and you’ll get your three silvers on the nonce.”
Jacyntha hung onto the Orc’s shoulder with all her ebbing strength and focussed on keeping her own legs moving, but it was difficult given how queasy she felt and how blurry her vision was.
“But I really wanted to play in the final,” Mik Mangenain, notorious Mongrel striker replied. “Youz my agent, Grimmy, you should be able to sort it out.”
“Yuz cup-tied!” Grimejacket said as they trundled down a lane that wove a jagged path from the Plaza de los Armamentos down to the Circlo Maral.
“What that mean?” Mangenain asked.
“It means you can’t play for more than one team in a season. Don’t get me wrong, Mik, I’d love to farm you out to three or four teams. It’d add up, all that scant recognition for my dedicated services an’ all.”
Temple of the Viper, would they just shut up!
“This way,” Grimejacket said when they got to the circlo and climbed the Monte Alto.
“You sure?” Mangenain asked, looking around. “Don’t look like a place to hide a body. This part of town looks swank. Me and a pack of lads could clean up a place like this big time!”
“Tell me about it!” Grimmy replied. “Damnable Pact gets in the way of honest pillaging, am I right?”
They stopped in front of a broad stone building encircled by a wrought iron fence adorned with stylized fleurs-de-lys topping every vertical bar. Atop the building, Jacyntha could just about make out a sky-blue flag with the same golden lys symbol snapping in the fierce autumn wind. Grimejacket called to the gatehouse, “Here she is!”
A pair of guards in plate mail and sporting livery identical to the flag emerged. They looked askance at the visitors but unbarred the gate. A spike of pain shot through her head when they pulled her from Mangenain’s grasp. “Wouldst thou await us a moment?” one of the guards asked Mangenain, “I wouldst beg a boon of thee.”
“Huh?” the Orc asked.
Grimejacket translated. “He wants your otto-graph. Not every day a guy gettin’ ex-ploy-ted like this guy gets to meet the star of the Mongrels, now, is it?”
It took longer than she had hoped, but she finally was brought inside the one place in Guayamartí where her mother or even the Hierarchs wouldn’t find her. She was taken before a tall, elderly woman with penetrating blue eyes and long, grey hair braided into a tress that hung across her shoulder. She wore a long, purple velvet gown and a thick golden chain hung around her neck. She rose and helped Jacyntha onto a cushioned sofa.
“Verily this is a surprise!” the woman proclaimed. “Thou art most welcome in the chancery of the Embassy of Henri the Tenth, King of Chivalria. I am Catherine de Bellême, the King’s Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Hierarchs of Guayamartí.”
A mischievous look sprang into Ambassador Bellême’s eyes. “I shall keep you safe.”
The ambassador’s personal doctor directed light from a lantern into each of Jacyntha’s eyes, one after the other, studying the reaction of the pupils. “The Quarrels most readily defeated that treacherous Duc Tancred de Baston’s team. The rebel knights doth lack the tackling skills necessary to thwart Sylvans, methinks. Canst thou follow my thumb with thine eyes?”
Jacyntha nodded and did as directed.
Up against Pierce Rosethorn again!
“Good, good, most excellent. The final score was four against one, I am reliably informed.” He blew out the candle in the lantern and stood.
“Will I be fit for the cup final?” Jacyntha asked.
“Thine skull remains intact, my lady. You have a fortnight before the game. I wouldst never recommend anyone play that dangerous sport of yours but I suppose it is like to a battle that a doughty knight must needs contest. Do not exert thyself for three days, whereupon thou shouldest protect thyself from blows to the head. Thou shouldest be in fine fettle for confronting the Sylvans.”
The physician departed, leaving Jacyntha lying abed in a guest chamber in Catherine de Bellême’s diplomatic residence.
Three days later, the ambassador’s steward announced that an Elf had arrived seeking an audience with Mytilan’s princess. Jacyntha met Miranda Esquiv outside, on the grounds of the residence, and she took possession of the sporting gear she had left behind in the Sanger.
“I once told you that you were a young girl playing at football, not a football player,” Esquiv said, limping into position in front of Jacyntha.1 “I said there was a difference. I was right and I’m still right, that young girl who bought me a pitcher of Artemis Tenantis wasn’t a football player.” Jacyntha had nearly forgotten that summer night in the Luffing Lateen when she had dared cross over to the ruined former catcher of Rayos, an Elven team that had played in the Sommer Sea Football League a decade earlier.
“I remember,” Jacyntha said. “But I tell you, I am not a young girl!”
Esquiv chuckled. She almost looked contented, not the wreck of a player whose career had been ended by Rennigan Slythe. She said, “Yes you are. But you’re also a football player now.”
Jacyntha peered into Esquiv’s purple eyes.
Was that a compliment?
“All right, you’re the Militantes’ thrower, and you’re good at dodging, throwing blocks, and slipping under a block into the position most advantageous to you. But if you’re going up against the Quarrels, you’ll need to work on one thing.”
“Reading your counterpart’s eyes.”
Esquiv chuckled again and explained, “You throw upfield to one of your catchers, well, there’s a good chance a Sylvan will come down with it unless you’re a hell of a thrower. They’ll get the ball to their own thrower, Jarrol Lanzar. You can bet however many pitchers of Artemis Tenantis you like that there’ll be a pair of Quarrels catchers deep in your own backfield. You’ll have to know to which one ol’ Jarrol’s going to throw. Then you’ll have to get damned good at diving catches.”
They practised diving catches and reading tell-tale signs about where a player was looking.
The next day, it was an Orc who arrived, the famous Agony Muerevarg, who Jacyntha had seen play in Halos. Together, they worked on Jacyntha’s long throws.
And so it went for the next fortnight.
“Put your legs into it!”
Karolyse sat up and glared at Umberto. “Coach Karsgaard always told us not to go to ground. He said it was dangerous.”
“It is. But unlike Karsgaard, I never said winning would be safe, see. So I expect you to put your legs into it and to throw yourself at your opponent. And I also never said to lie about on the turf once you’re done. Get your ass off the ground as quickly as possible.”
Umberto had worked with the players’ new agent, Grimmy Grimejacket, to contract an Elf to practise with the team. In one full morning of training, only Qispi had successfully tackled Relámpago Flash. This latter presently extended a hand and helped Karolyse off the dirt pitch, giving her one of those arrogant smiles that said: ‘I’m so happy to help you up, bumbling Human’. Her sisters watched on in an arc, all scowling, knowing that their turn for humiliation was coming.
Karolyse felt her ire rise. “If it’s so easy, show us.”
Umberto tossed a ball to Flash. “Ready?”
The Elf chuckled. “Try your best, old man.”
Umberto lowered himself onto the balls of his feet and cocked his arms. He stepped forward, the Elf feinted, and suddenly Umberto launched himself horizontally. The Elf dodged away, laughing, but the bodyguard’s hand flew out and snagged an elven toe. Flash stumbled, flung out an arm to keep himself off the pitch, staggered forward, regained his footing, and arced backwards as Umberto clattered into his back. They crashed to the dirt and the ball rolled free.
Umberto helped an indignant-looking Flash off the ground. The Elf said, “Lucky dive, old man.” Umberto winked.
Then their interim coach turned back to the Xonyxas. “I’ll hand you all some advice. Don’t go rolling around in front of Orcs, Dwarves, or Havoc Warriors, but Sylvans, see, they’re not the stay-in-one-place-and-fight-it-out type. You’ll get away with a quick roll on the pitch.”
He held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and added, “You’re this far from lifting the Blue Blood Cup. Since the summer, I’ve shown you a swim move to get past an opponent’s block, how to grab an opponent throwing a block at you, how to fend off an opponent after he’s thrown that block, and how to support each other in the ruck so you can guard your teammate’s flank from blind side blocks and vice versa. That’ll all serve your well, see, but what if you play a team that doesn’t block?”
He gave them all time to consider that. Then he brandished his thumb and forefinger again. “This far from lifting the cup, but I’ll tell you what … if you don’t get better at the diving part of a diving tackle, they’re gonna pass through you like wind through their precious trees, and this far will be how far you fall short of the championship.”
1 Avid readers may not remember this conversation. It appears in one of the five “lost episodes” of Up and Under. “What?” you ask? Never worry, friends. There is a plan to ensure the lost lore appears when an enlightened publisher, Chrome Soda, launches a Kickstarter in collaboration with Taureau Amiral in the Spring of 2022. Stay tuned for more details as they emerge.