The Story So Far:
Jacyntha Strong and the rest of the Mytilan Militantes participate in an off-season week of training organized by their agent, Grimmy Grimejacket. The training consists of throwing big heavy leather balls to each other under the observation of star Orc thrower Agony Muerevarg. After the training session, Jacyntha speaks to Ellpay, trying to repair the damage done to their relationship by the events of the Blue Blood Cup Final. Jacyntha says she’s sorry, not for having literally given the cup to Pierce Fucking Rosethorn, but for not having tackled him earlier on that same game-winning play. She admits she’s particularly sorry for putting too much “VaVOOM” on the second half pass to Ellpay that the catcher couldn’t haul in, leading to a critical turnover. Ellpay hears Jacyntha out and asks, “VaVOOM?” This leads to a breaking of the ice and a new dancing walk for the catcher.
But as Ell moves off, Jacyntha’s cousin, Karolyse, draws near and asks about Umberto’s whereabouts. She reveals the Dark Elf witch, Dred Curseweaver, sister to the notorious Nytmir, has been tracking down Militantes and interrogating them about the events on the night her sister was killed. Karolyse notes that the creepiest part of the whole creepy experience was hearing Dred ask whether Umberto liked killing.
A club thumping into an Exotherm’s skull
That was what Anahuark’s foul sounded like to Jacyntha; the skulls of those damned big lizards were hard and had hollow chambers running through them, making an echoing thump when they got brained in battle.
Makes sense: Ana has just stomped on an Exotherm’s head after all.
The referee hadn’t seen anything – Anahuark’s specialty – and medical staff came hustling over to carry the thing off to the infirmary as the game carried on.
Only five more to go!
Playing against the lizards rather than fighting them with spears was damned hard, even if it was safer than actual battle. Although Belyna had toppled the Exotherm and Anahuark had dispatched it, the Xonyxas still couldn’t get at the ball-carrier. The diminutive Geckoid with the boarskin clutched to its chest, saw the danger and the Viper-bitten thing zipped off to where the Dracodile dominated the line of scrimmage. That accursed thing, three paces tall and with a muscular tail about as long, was quick despite being humongous and it had penetrated deep into the Militantes’ half. Its tail made great sweeps at knee-height, forcing the Xonyxas back if they didn’t want to be knocked down. The good news was that Jacyntha’s sisters had become very good at dodging and most were still on their feet.
Indeed, after Coach Umberto had joined up with the team in the Pacadalian port city of Marigolde, he had given the players a scouting report on the Salamanders as they sailed to X’otl. His game plan was based on marking and dodging. The Exotherms played like Orc blockers, only they were faster at moving forward, slower at turning, and rubbish at skipping away from a marker. Umberto wanted her to pin one of the damned things down near the far sideline. Jacyntha was actively marking and dodging now.
She ducked and felt a scaly arm brush her hair. The Exotherm roared at her, clearly frustrated.
Too hot for you, Lizzie?
Unable to swat her clear, it elected to herd her out of bounds where the rabid fans would take care of her. But it hadn’t counted on Umberto’s signature swim move. She slipped underneath another swipe and danced along the sideline.
Belyna, I hope you’re watching!
The Viper-bitten thing swivelled and came at her again. Another swim move saw her dance clear of the touchline, with the Exotherm skidding to a halt right next to the out of bounds pylons. Hardly two paces away from the big lizard, the travelling contingent of braying Militantes fans was slavering at the prospect of getting their hands on it. Which was where Belyna came in. The striker came charging and leapt into the scaly beast, her shoulder hitting it flat on the back. The frenzied crowd took care of the rest.
Four to go!
Jacyntha and Belyna did a hand slap – the Militantes’ fans hollered in approval – but then they saw Umberto waving them towards the Dracodile. They joined the ranks in the ruck, flanking Karolyse and the new recruit from the Queensguard, Moreaka. The Dracodile swiped its tail, Moreaka spun away, the tail came around, and she grabbed hold of its end. Belyna and Karolyse each grabbed hold of a scaly great arm. It struggled but couldn’t plant its feet properly getting yanked as it was by the tail. Jacyntha leapt high and threw a block, ringing the side of its head with her fist.
She landed, clutching her hand. But the Dracodile swayed, staggered backwards towards Moreaka, and then pitched forward onto its face. The Salamanders were outnumbered. They were down to four Exotherms in the ruck and four small Geckoids clustered behind. Ten Xonyxas closed in from the flanks.
What in the thirteen sweet hells?
The Geckoids flooded forward. There was nowhere for them to go, all the gaps were narrow and covered by Xonyxas, but they scurried up the field nevertheless, weaving between the stunned Dracodile’s extremities, using its tail as a springboard and jumping forward, darting past the pair of Exotherms on the line. Pillcu blocked the lead Geckoid but it slipped sideways on her and stayed on its feet. Then it pushed back against her, opening a crack.
By the Temple of the Viper, it’s through!
The ball-carrier had no business slipping through so narrow a gap and dodging so many blocks. It sprinted diagonally towards the goal line.
But Umberto had held back Qispi, the eleventh Militante. Their tackling specialist intercepted the slippery thing at the ten-pace marker. It slipped around her and darted off, but, like most of the Militantes, she had been working out during the off-season and she executed a brilliant diving tackle, catching hold of its tail.
By the good Jaguar, how is that possible?
The Geckoid’s tail came right off at the base! The lizard didn’t look bothered at all as it sprinted, tailless, into the end zone.
The stadium in the heart of the strange city of X’otl went wild with chirping and hissing. Even the (heavily protected) banks of travelling supporters couldn’t help but applaud; the Geckoid had managed an amazing way to score a touchdown.
It was just a pre-season friendly after all, organized by Mytilan’s Queen Beatriz to promote peace and understanding between her people and their reptilian neighbours.
“You cannot resign from being my daughter.”
That was the extent of the first paragraph of the letter Jacyntha had received from her mother two months prior, on the very day she had patched up her damaged relationship with Ellpay. The second was marginally longer.
“You are going to serve Mytilan, one way or another. No daughter of mine will refuse the call of the heir of Xonyxa the Strong.”
Then the letter carried onto a third paragraph that was, in comparison, a virtual saga.
“I may not approve of your choice to go through life as a mere ‘football player’ but I admit you have done it with aplomb. Now do it in the service of your land. I seek a peaceable frontier along the T’zixa’Nija River and a home and away series of friendly football matches is a first step towards actual negotiations. Cassandra Thordwall hesitates, preferring to play warm-up games against teams in your league … and she tells me there are some complications related to your coach needing to take a vacation and something about a new player. Complications do not interest me, but I can do little about it; Mytilan ceded to her control of the operations of the team by not funding it to an equal extent. But she will not deny you, I guess. To sweeten the deal, should this thing get done, I’ll arrange for your coach to enjoy a relaxing getaway up the Pacadalian coast, where he can do some scouting for you. Furthermore, I’ll even throw in an actual Queensguard as a new recruit for the team. Speak to Thordwall, my daughter. Convince her.”
Her mother’s letter had signed off with her usual flourish.
The letter had finished with an ominous post-script.
“P.S. – Duc Tancred de Baston remains furious that you made a liar of me by refusing the betrothal agreement he and I negotiated to see you marry King Carles of Chivalria. Keep your eyes out for threats coming from that quarter.”
Her mother’s begrudging acceptance of her footy career convinced Jacyntha their relationship was salvageable, especially seeing as she had only just salvaged her friendship with Ellpay. She had therefore done as her mother bade her; she had spoken with the owner of the Mytilan Militantes about the pre-season friendlies. Mistress Thordwall had hemmed and hawed before picking up on the bit about a possible recruit who wasn’t just a rejected Queensguard candidate but someone who had gained access to the ranks of Mytilan’s elite soldiery. After getting an “I’ll think on it,” out of Thordwall, Jacyntha had asked about the new player about whom her mother had written. “That’s a secret between she and I,” Thordwall had said with a steely face. “You’ll find out in due course. And anyway, it’s not yet a done deal.”
When asked how her relationship was with Duc Tancred de Baston, owner-manager of the rival Guayamartí Imperials, the former pirate had harrumphed and replied, “You’d think I’d have kidnapped him again.” Then she had added, “He may have a reason to hate us that goes beyond your supposed betrothal to Carles.”
Thordwall had shaken her head. “I told you, you’ll find out in due course.”
“And what’s wrong with Coach Umberto?” Jacyntha had asked. “He hasn’t attended our training programme with Grimmy Grimejacket.”
Thordwall had shrugged. “Well, let us just say your mother unwittingly used the right term when she offered a ‘getaway’ for him.”
Jacyntha had been shocked. “You mean he’s on the run from the law?”
Thordwall had waved away her concerns. “No, no, the law’s certainly not after our coach.”
After another exchange of letters between Guayamartí and Mytilan, Thordwall had acceded to the Queen’s request. An enhanced offer from her minority shareholder helped: paid room and board, a full-sized practice pitch, a bevy of new rookies to try out for the Blue Blood Cup Runners-Up, and one potential new recruit whose tryout was all but a formality, Moreaka daughter of Kal-Kai, five-year veteran of the Queensguard who suddenly needed a new occupation. In Umberto’s absence, the training camp would be overseen by none other than Miranda Esquiv.
Jacyntha knew enough about her mother’s ways to suspect Moreaka had been on guard duty when something sensitive had happened in the palace. Beatriz needed rid of the woman but didn’t want to demean her. If Moreaka had become a footy fan after the rise of the Militantes the year before, pointing her in the direction of the team was an elegant solution that offered other benefits.
Another pair of eyes on me!
And when training camp had begun in Mytilan, Moreaka had shown herself to be good, really good. As strong as she was quick, she was also decisive, dextrous, and sound of judgment. Coach Esquiv admitted Moreaka had everything a starting footy player needed and more. She was the perfect permanent replacement for Ocllo, whose place on the roster had never been adequately filled. She became the oldest Militante by far.
Then, with a month until the team was to start the regular-season against the Guayamartí Wharf Rats, Mytilan’s fleet had set sail for Marigolde, where they picked up Coach Umberto, before gliding into the calm harbour of X’otl for a game against the Salamanders.
“You’ll break your knuckles that way.”
Moreaka had an arm draped around Jacyntha’s shoulders and whispered the warning. “My princess, I beg you avoid hits like that again unless you have a gauntlet like Chivalron knights wear over the hands.”
Jacyntha nodded, feeling herself flush. She wasn’t used to being schooled by her peers. She replied, “Moreaka, on the Militantes, I’m not a princess, I am a player like everyone else.”
Moreaka nodded in that way people have that says, “Sure you are.”
The second half was easier, with two Exotherms out of the way and the Dracodile shaken up to the point of permanent grogginess. The big beast reacted slowly, hardly moved off its starting position anchoring the centre of the Salamander line, and only raged into the ruck once. Jacyntha hung back with the ball until Qispi had taken down three of the rapid, mobile Geckoids. There came a moment of alarm when, against all odds, an Exotherm slipped away from its marker and lumbered down on her, throwing a solid block. Jacyntha gave as good as she got and in the instant it took the big thing to realize the Xonyxa still stood, she had dodged away.
The ball, another one of her signature long passes that arched high into the sky, couldn’t have been picked off unless the Salamanders had recruited one of those mythical pterodactyls. Ellpay made a brilliant one-handed catch and walked the ball backwards into the end zone yelling “VaVOOM!”
Umberto subbed off Jacyntha and Ell so as to give some rookies a chance to prove themselves.
The game finished two – one to the Salamanders. Almost everyone was happy; the Queen had launched her diplomacy to secure the border, the denizens of X’otl saw their team win an entertaining game, Umberto saw his core players develop match fitness and got the in-game proof he needed to know he had a keeper in Moreaka, Cassandra Thordwall made some money, and the Xonyxas had shaken off some rust from a long off-season. Even Miranda Esquiv seemed less morose, like she’d found something new and interesting to do after having searched for a few decades.
Five Xonyxas departed X’otl unhappy. They were cut from the team and although invited to try out again next year, there was no sugar-coating the bad news for them.
“Footy’s a hard business, see, and we’ve got a cup to win,” Umberto said.
Jacyntha couldn’t have said it any better.