The Story So Far
The Mytilan Militantes, having won the semi-final of the Blue Blood Cup, receive a royal visitor to the locker room: Queen Beatriz. The Queen congratulates the Xonyxas on their victory but she has not come to celebrate. She has come, with her Queensguard, to bring her daughter to heel: Jacyntha must set aside footy and serve her country by marrying the pretender to the Chivalron throne, King Carles IV. (who we met in Episode 40). Beatriz demands to see her daughter but a quick visit to the infirmary reveals that Jacyntha has disappeared.
Jacyntha has been spirited out of the Sanger by her new agent, the Goblin Grimmy Grimejacket, and the Orc, Mik Mangenain. They help Jacyntha walk to the swank part of Guayamartí, the Monte Alto, where they arrive at a rich building flying the Chivalron standard. The Militantes’ captain is given refuge by none other than Catherine de Bellême, the official envoy of the man who deposed Carles IV from the throne, King Henri X. This, Jacyntha knows, is the one place in the city where her mother’s informants will never think to look for her. While receiving medical attention after her knock on the head during the game, Jacyntha learns she should be fully recovered for the Blue Blood Cup Final. She also learns against whom the Militantes will play: Pierce Rosethorn and his Gloriana Quarrels.
During the subsequent fortnight, Jacyntha works out on the lawns of Ambassador Bellême’s residence with the Elf Miranda Esquiv and with the Orc Agony Muerevarg. Jacyntha had come to admire Muerevarg’s long throws and now he shows her his technique. Esquiv, however, says that however good Jacyntha might be at throwing, she’ll need to become even better at catching. When asked why, the former Elf catcher replies that it’s inevitable that the Quarrels will cause turnovers, and when they do, they’ll throw their own deep passes. Jacyntha will be the last line of defence if she’s throwing from the Militantes’ backfield; thus she’ll need to work on her diving catches.
The rest of the Militantes practice under the concerned eye of their interim head coach, Umberto de la Calle. Umberto, too, has brought in an Elf to help the team and explains: many of the skills he has taught them are about blocking or evading blocks. But what if the Quarrels don’t throw blocks? He explains that Sylvans like Pierce Rosethorn prioritize movement and evasion. The players need to work on their diving tackles. Then he holds up his thumb and forefinger, the one just a hair’s breadth away from the other, and says the team has gotten “this far” from lifting the cup, but that if they don’t get better at tackling, “…this far will be how far you fall short of the championship.
A Hitherto Un-Recounted Facet of the Story
Thalia Espina, a budding inventor and historian, documents the festival that is the morning of the Blue Blood Cup Final. Ships are everywhere in the harbour, having brought Sylvan and Xonyxa alike to the city. Fans are frolicking, enjoying the food being sold by street vendors, the music in the plazas, and the acrobatic displays around town. The heroines, the Militantes, make a glorious appearance at the temple where they pray on game day, including their captain Jacyntha. Suddenly a troop of Queen Beatriz’s Queensguard arrive to seize the princess, but the team and league officials fight off the assault.
Clearly the Xonyxas are ready for anything.
“I DON’T COACH MOTIVATION”
Jacyntha glanced at her sisters; it was clear they didn’t know what to make of Umberto’s declaration either. She breathed a sigh of relief; she had been worried she’d missed some special instruction he had given over the past fortnight when she had been forced to train in private at the grounds of Catherine de Bellême with the Elf Miranda Esquiv and the Orc, Agony Muerevarg.
Umberto stood in the middle of the dressing room … way closer to Chico’s basket than Coach Karsgaard ever would have.
“If the boss took on an aspiring bodyguard who didn’t want to get into a fight, I wouldn’t coach them on how to get up for a fight, see, I’d get rid of them. Now, judging from how you dealt with the Queensguard this morning, I don’t think I have to worry about you not having the stomach for a fight. And something tells me you don’t need a motivational speech before going out onto the pitch.”
The Xonyxas figured out his point and nodded.
They fought for me!
Jacyntha’s mother had sent Queensguard to the temple (and, according to Karolyse, she also sent squads of her bodyguards to the Luffing Lateen, the Kingfisher Inn, the training ground across the Bridge of a Hundred Arches, to the dormitory in the tenement where the team resided, and even to Grimmy Grimejacket’s hovel down by the docks). Her attempt to seize Jacyntha thwarted, Queen Beatriz was now up in the owners’ box with Mistress Thordwall.
That would be a cold place to be and not because of the weather.
Umberto held up his index finger.
“We’re number one!” Ellpay yelled in response.
“No! That’s not what I meant,” Umberto said, chuckling. Umberto didn’t chuckle much. “Quiet now, Ell. I want you all to use your ears for a moment. Listen.”
The changing room fell into silence.
And then Jacyntha heard it: they all did. The thunderous chanting of the fans echoing down into the bowels of the Eztadio de Sanger. As if reading her mind, Umberto said, “Some call this place the Cemetery of Dreams. Mistress Thordwall calls it something else, though. Know what?” Heads shook. “The Palladium of the Impossible! She’s right, you know. The boss was right all along. You’ve already proven that this here stadium is where the impossible comes to life. Fledgeling teams don’t make cup finals … but wait! They do … if they have the right players. We have the right players. We also have a game plan. Execute it and the impossible can come to life once again.”
Then he shocked them all, yelling to the ceiling, “You did well, my vinr! They’re ready!”
Jacyntha closed her eyes and thumped her heart. When she opened her eyes again, she saw that she hadn’t been the only one to honour Umberto’s invocation of Coach Karsgaard.
The team strode out of the changing room. They were somber, confident, serious. But they walked with a spring in their step.
Only Anahuark dampened Jacyntha’s spirits when they walked down the tunnel. Out of the side of her mouth, Anahuark said, “Pierce Rosethorn is just another player, not some bloke you used to snog, got it.”
Jacyntha was about to snarl “Who do you think you are?” when she remembered two things: the regular season game against the Quarrels had gone disastrously because Jacyntha had been determined to humiliate, crush, stomp on the Sylvan for having cheated on her with her own best friend, Occlo; and, in terms of who Anahuark thought she was, well, she was now the captain of the Mytilan Militantes. Anahuark played a key role in making sure everyone would stick to the game plan.
“I didn’t suffer the death of my best friend, kidnapping by my own mother, and capture by slavers just to throw it away on a stale emotion. Don’t worry about me, Ana. I’ll do my job. But you’re wrong if you think Pierce Rosethorn is just another player.”
Anahuark glared at her but, just as they neared the tunnel entrance and the crowd noise became a living thing with form and substance, the Militantes’ captain nodded and pulled Jacyntha into a tight embrace. “May the Jaguar guide you.”
“Hell no!” Jacyntha replied, hugging Ana back just as hard. “The Viper! Let the Viper guide me!”
They laughed and emerged into the bright, crisp sunlight of Guayamartí’s Eztadio de Sanger, the preeminent footy coliseum on all the shores of the Sommer Sea.
“Another trick kick!”
Hansi squealed like a pig upon seeking the opening kick-off shanked by Cuxi-Mikay. She had lined up alone just back from the line of scrimmage on the far side of the pitch, in front of the riotous Quarrels’ supporters, and had hit a low kick cross-field instead of high and down-field. There were plenty Sylvans around to snatch the ball out of the air, but the Xonyxas came crashing into them just as the ball arrived. The boarskin got bobbled amongst half a dozen players before Hallelujah Leafbud managed to bring it under control.
“Qispi’s brought him down!” Nykal yelled. Leafbud might have grabbed the ball but he didn’t see the Militantes’ expert tackler come flying at him until the last moment. Dodge as he might, she’d wrapped her strong arms around him and took him to the turf. Nykal bounced on the balls of his feet. The ball, too, was bouncing but he couldn’t see it among the press of bodies. Then he caught a glimpse of it as it rebounded off that fierce striker Karolyse and bounced out of bounds, into the Militante fans. Neither of the two cousins could afford tickets down that close to the sideline, but it didn’t stop them from joining the flood of spectators surging down the rows of benches to grab the ball. But, of course, someone got it before they could get close, and they promptly threw the boarskin behind the ruck where Jacyntha Strong scooped it up.
“Our thrower’s got the ball!” Hansi said, pushing away spectators blocking his view.
Nykal spotted movement across the pitch. “Hansi!” he yelled, pointing, “There’s their damned WoodDancer!”
Pierce Rosethorn was footy’s best ball-hawk, responsible for causing all three of the Imperials’ turn-overs in the semi-final. And he was now bearing down on ’Cyntha.
Nykal couldn’t stand to watch. He closed his eyes and realized he couldn’t stand to not watch either.
Jacyntha spotted Rosethorn. He had been downfield for the kick-off but he had come dashing forward and he had kept his eye on the ball. After she had scooped it off the pitch, those beautiful eyes locked on hers. He even gave her a dainty wave of his fingers. The banks of Quarrels supporters roared.
That wasn’t for me, that was for the crowd! Show off!
She retreated deep into the backfield, knowing the thrice-damned Sylvan could spring over defenders when he wasn’t weaving through them. Umberto had told her she’d need space, so she used what space she had. Karolyse dropped back with her.
Sure enough, Rosethorn came slithering around the side of the ruck, waiting for gaps to open up, slipping through screening Xonyxas and upending Laylalla. When a pair of Quarrels catchers joined him, they came in for the kill.
“Fuuuuck me!” Hansi yelled.
Jacyntha and Karolyse had fallen back, but the rest of the Militantes had maintained their heavy hitting and tackling of the Sylvans on the line of scrimmage and they opened up a hole. Anahuark and Ellpay had sprinted through and gone downfield, one to each side of the pitch. No one marked them. Jacyntha sprang from her back foot, planted her forefoot, and twisted her torso, getting every ounce of her considerable strength into the long bomb. It flew farther than anyone in the stands could have imagined, going so high there was never any question of Pierce Rosethorn intercepting the pass. No one could have. No one did.
Ellpay continued her sprint and lunged, snagging the ball out of the air and rolling into the end zone in one fluid movement.
Hansi howled to the sky. Nykal slapped his cousin on the back and then started thumping his own chest like a gorilla in the N’Itgat Jungle from whence came his Militantes. The Eztadio de Sanger exploded in noise.
“That, my steel rose, was quite the throw.”
She stuck out her tongue at Rosethorn. It was childish but it felt good.
He gave her a bow that triggered applause from the Quarrels’ fans. As they walked back to the centre line, he asked, a smirk upon his face, “Where did that come from?”
“I’ve been working out with Agony Muerevarg this past fortnight.”
“Have you indeed? Ah yes, you and your fellow Xonyxas have taken on Grimejacket as an agent, I hear. That opens doors, one supposes.”
“And Miranda Esquiv has been showing me her diving tackle.”
“Ah, dear old Miranda. She was … competent … back in her day. Before the dearly departed Rennigan Slythe got to her. You do know there are other dangerous players still alive, still in the game, do you not? You have taken up a most dangerous pastime, princess.”
“You don’t let up, do you?”
“I but tell the truth, my young steel rose, the bitter truth. I’m an Elf of my word, after all.” She stopped in her assigned kick-off position whilst he carried on walking into his own half. He called back, “Now I know that throw’s in your arsenal … I look forward to seeing it again.” He flashed her his most-arrogant of grins. Then he whipped out a cut rose from somewhere and tossed it into the air behind him with one hand. His other hand shot out and grabbed the rose. It all happened behind his back and without him looking. The message was clear.
What kind of footy player hides cut flowers on his person before a cup final?
She shook her head.
Pierce Rosethorn, of course.
She slapped Ellpay’s proffered hand as the goalscorer came back into the Militante half, snapping her fingers and bobbing her head.
“If at first you succeed, try, try again.”
Anahuark had said it before the restart, so Cuxi-Mikay had done another short kick. Again the Xonyxas crashed into the Sylvans, but Jacyntha quickly realized the corollary to Anahuark’s saying was, “Once viper-bitten, twice shy.”
A wall of Quarrels was ready for the onrushing Militantes and Hallelujah Leafbud made a clean catch. In the blink of an eye he had thrown it back to Rápido Luz who threw it cross-field to Sonrisa Lively. Cuxi-Mikay found herself alone and overwhelmed. The Quarrels equalized with ease.
In the mêlée on the line of scrimmage, each team had a player shaken up and taken off for treatment. As they set up for the ensuing kick-off, Jacyntha realized it was her cousin receiving the attentions of Huaco-chic’ya. Ometicul subbed on in Karolyse’s place. Ometicul was the team’s youngest player, and the one with the least playing time now that Qispi had found her vocation as a tackler. Jacyntha hoped the girl would play half as well as Karolyse could.
“She’s done it again!”
Nykal grasped his head with his hands and wished for all the gods in all the lands Hansi lied. He opened an eye a crack and closed it again. More than one team could execute funny kicks and the Quarrels had directed the kick-off to Karolyse’ substitute, Ometicul. She had bobbled the catch and the ball had bounced back towards the Quarrels’ half. She had scrambled after the boarskin in a panic but Anahuark had grabbed it. Then, under pressure from Rosethorn, she had lateraled the ball back to that same sub, who’d bobbled the ball again.
“Lanzar’s got it!” Hansi yelled, referring to the Quarrels’ thrower, Jarrol Lanzar, the Sylvan counterpart to Jacyntha.
“That’s it,” Nykal cried. “They’ll score again!”
Lanzar stood tall as the pocket collapsed around him and threw a strike downfield to Amenaza Profunda. The star catcher hauled in the pass even though Laylalla was entangled with her. She scampered clear, dodging a diving tackle, and crossed the goal line at a canter.
Nykal felt like fainting at half time. His hands trembled, his heart pounded, his mouth was parched. The second half only made it worse.
Jacyntha had thrown another excellent deep pass to Ellpay but the Militantes’ catcher had tripped trying to haul in the ball. She had scrambled to her feet, but too late, for Lanzar had already gained possession. The Militantes had excellent coverage on the underneath receivers but Profunda had gotten open deep, deep in the Xonyxa half. Two – one up and with the opportunity to put the cup final out of reach, Lanzar cocked his arm, torqued his body, and threw.
’Cyntha streaked across the pitch towards Profunda, who was waiting for the ball to arrive. The Xonyxa arrived at the same time as the ball; she dove, but not to make a tackle on the dodging Profunda, but to make a play on the ball, just like she’d practised with Miranda Esquiv. She flew high and far.
“Picked-off!” Nykal screamed in delirium.
It was a stunning interception but the job wasn’t done. Profunda leapt in and tried to strip the ball loose. Jacyntha upended the Elf and sought support.
“They’re too spread out!” Hansi cried.
Nykal nodded. The Militantes were scattered, down players, dazzled by the speed of the game and all the long passes. Then he saw Jacyntha wave Anahuark downfield. It’d be another epic long bomb!
“No!” Nykal wailed as Jacyntha’s arm flew forward.
“Gotcha!” Hansi yelled. “Pump fake!”
Rosethorn had been waiting, watching. He had broken towards Anahuark as Jacyntha pumped. But Hansi was right! – It was a fake and Jacyntha twisted to throw to the striker, Belyna, on the other side of the Quarrel half. Rosethorn was good, very good, but he couldn’t be in two places at once. It was a perfect pass that two other Sylvans between Jacyntha and her target could do nothing to prevent. Belyna made the catch and broke downfield in one graceful movement. Cuxi-Mikay and Qispi screened her from Rosethorn as she swept down the sideline and into the end zone.
“Two – two!” Hansi yelled.
“But we’ve gotta kick-off!”
“Nykal me lad, this game’s been brilliant. But I reckon there’s a touch more brilliance to come. Don’t lose faith, cuz!”
“Get the bastard!”
Jacyntha knew him, Pierce Rosethorn, knew he’d make for the sideline.
Get him now!
She had seen Jarrol Lanzar fade right and had known Rosethorn would be the target for a pass. She had backed off her sisters in the ruck and had done so just in the nick of time. The Sylvan thrower threaded a pass right between Belyna’s and Karolyse’s outstretched arms, and guess who slipped around the line to snatch the pass out of the air and head down the sideline?
Yup, that bastard Pierce Rosethorn.
With the Sanger roaring in her ears, the spectators sensing the inevitability of the winning score just as the championship game was heading to overtime, Jacyntha willed herself into full flight.
Widen the angle!
Rosethorn was quicker than her so she needed to get the angle right. Instead of closing him down as she’d normally do, she made for the corner flag. Her teeth flashed white, less a smile than a clenched snarl. In contrast, the bastard Sylvan grinned and dangled the ball on an outstretched arm towards her as he raced down the sideline.
She dug deeper, leaned further forward, and pumped her legs. For all she knew of Rosethorn’s speed, she didn’t think he knew of hers. They flew down the pitch in convergent trajectories, crossing the half-way line at the same instant. The Sylvan, confident in his skill and playing to the crowd, pulled out that damned cut rose again and brandished it to the crowd as he ran.
Anger made her quicker.
There was no one in the backfield to help… the Quarrels had reduced the Militantes to eight players and Jacyntha’s teammates were all in the ruck. But she realized that maybe she didn’t need help; she had been practising her tackles with Miranda Esquiv after all. Also, pulling out the rose had cost Rosethorn a pace. Anger had given that lost pace to her. Indeed, he must have realized his error because he let the rose fall to the ground as he accelerated.
They were still stride for stride as they passed the 20-pace marker. Rosethorn wasn’t grinning anymore. He, too, leaned forward.
Fifteen paces … ten … five.
Then two things happened at precisely the same time. Calling on Esquiv’s tackling advice, Jacyntha lunged in a blur of blue and yellow macaw feathers; Pierce Rosethorn skidded and slipped sideways, anticipating the tackle and avoiding it.
The crowd held its breath and as she sailed past the accursed Sylvan, a silence reigned, the intake of breath before the roar, and only the pounding of her heart filled her ears. Rosethorn leaned back as she careened past, the fingertips of her right hand brushing the nose of the honey badger tattoo on his chest.
There was no thought that guided her hand, no tactic practised on the training ground, no weapon that extended her reach, but as she flew towards the sideline she clutched at his belt.
The crowd roared!
But her fingers lost their hold on the belt and Rosethorn spun free. She saw him dance, pirouetting, the final half-dozen paces, the ball held high towards the gleeful Quarrels fans in the upper stands.
Then he stopped.
Right on edge of the goal line, his toes a hair’s breadth from the white chalk. As Jacyntha sprang to her feet knowing it was too late and hating him for taunting her in such a way, he inexplicably bent and set down the ball on the turf.
He suddenly looked heartbroken. “It’s yours,” he said, turning to face her as she scrambled towards him.
Those words brought her to a halt. “What do you mean?”
“I … I … you … you touched me.”
“Pierce, has something boiled your wits?”
Not my problem.
She snatched up the ball as he explained. “I said ‘the moment you lay a finger on me’ would be the moment I hung up my boots. I can’t score. I said ‘moment’. I’m an Elf of my word. I always live by my word.”
“You’re giving me the ball because I touched you?”
The crowd noise was bearing down on her … and a glance over her shoulder confirmed so were both teams. Ellpay was alone downfield waving her arms.
“I am no longer the most brilliant of the stars in the night sky, the glorious breeze that passes through all defences, the Dancer in the Promised Land.” His eyes went glassy.
He’s not going to weep, is he?
He took a deep breath. “I give you the victory and my congratulations. There are worse fates than losing to the touch of someone so gifted.”
“Oh, by the Viper, no!”
Snarling, she shoved him into the end zone. He didn’t dodge out of her way this time, accepting the push and staggering backwards. “Pierce! You’re a ball of arrogant shit!”
As she suspected, because she had yelled at him while tossing him the ball, his reflexes had kicked-in and he caught the boarskin while his mind was trying to figure out why she was angry after him having acted so graciously.
The Quarrels fans went wild.