The Story So Far:
The Mytilan Militantes play a pre-season friendly against the X’otl Salamanders. Jacyntha and the rest of the Militantes play well, particularly the newcomer, Moreaka, a former member of Mytilan’s Queensguard. But although they subdue the Salamanders’ humongous Dracodile, they are surprised by the agile Geckoids on the opposing team, learning you can’t tackle one of the little lizards by grabbing onto its tail … because the tails come off!
Two months before the Salamanders game, Jacyntha reads a letter from her mother, Queen Beatriz. Beatriz asks for help in convincing team owner Cassandra Thordwall that the Militantes should contribute to Mytilan’s diplomacy by playing a home and away series of friendlies against the Reptilian team from X’otl. We discover Moreaka was offered to the team for some unexplained reason. Intrigued by the offer, Thordwall accedes to Beatriz’ request.
The pre-season game continues in X’otl; Jacyntha and the other veterans continue to play well. Umberto has seen enough; he’s satisfied with his veterans’ play and subs on some aspiring new recruits. The Salamandres win 2-1 but most everyone’s happy. Beatriz launched her diplomacy, the Militantes shook off their pre-season rust, and the denizens of X’otl saw their team win. But five Xonyxas aren’t so happy; they get cut from the team.
Umberto says, “Footy’s a hard business, see, and we’ve got a cup to win.” Jacyntha agrees.
“Is it from a BOY friend?”
Jasmine, who was Jacyntha’s sister and Mytilan’s Crown Princess, held a sealed letter to her chest, a coquettish smile lighting her copper face.
“Dear sister, how am I to know if you don’t hand it to me?” Jacyntha replied.
Jasmine liked playing such games of lording over others far too much for a queen-in-waiting. Over the long, long years of dealing with her sister, Jacyntha had figured out the best way to deal with Jasmine.
Whatever it is you’re trying to use to buttress the power imbalance between us means nothing. Less than nothing.
“Or maybe it’s from a GIRL friend!” Jasmine gushed, waving the envelope in the air. “Perhaps that explains why you didn’t want to marry King Carles and become a queen!”
Jacyntha turned her back on her sister and looked out over the mangrove forest lining Gecko Bay. It had felt good to return to Mytilan for training camp. She loved her home city and she had missed its buildings, its lush, verdant parklands, and its people, particularly her many friends. Now, however, she surprised herself with a feeling of longing for the dramatic coastline of Guayamartí, for the city’s streets and plazas, its bustle … none of which featured an arrogant princess lording over everyone.
“Don’t you want to know who it’s from?” Jasmine asked, slathering more sauciness on the question than a Guayamartí pedlar would slather spicy ají on a fish takko.
“Not especially. If it were from someone important, you’d not dare keep it from me. I’m contented looking at the birds.” Then she pointed into the mangroves. “Hey! Is that a Roseate Spoonbill?”
“Fine! Have your stupid letter!” Jasmine threw the envelope across the balcony, probably hoping it would fly over the balustrade and flutter into the lagoon. Jacyntha’s hand flashed out and snatched it out of the air.
“Thank you, dear sister.”
Jasmine stormed off leaving Jacyntha alone momentarily. In the palace, she was never alone for long except in her apartment. She looked at the writing.
Well, this IS a surprise.
It was from the young woman she had met in the temple last autumn the day after the Militantes had lost the Blue Blood Cup Final, Thalia Espinas. She cracked the seal and withdrew a letter written in a steady, elegant hand. She scanned the page … and yelled.
She yelled again, this time articulate enough to form something that made sense. “Karolyse!”
Her cousin, also enjoying the hospitality of the palace, came running. “What? ’Cyntha, what is it?”
“The Quarrels!” Jacyntha bellowed, referring to the team that had beaten the Militantes in the cup final. “They got squished! They got squished!”
Karolyse gaped. “Squished?”
“In the Twin Seas Super Cup! They didn’t even get out of their group!”
Every year, the champions from the eight leagues scattered around the Sommer Sea and the Roiling Sea met to crown the Twin Seas Super Cup Champion. “They lost two of their games! Three – nil and four – one!”
Karolyse grinned, then stilled her features. “Oh, it’s a great pity for our league.”
Jacyntha mimicked her cousin’s sudden seriousness. “Yes, yes, a great pity.”
“NOT!” they both yelled, laughing.
Jacyntha read on. “Mistress Thordwall will be so pleased! It was the Hammarskjöld Nordhammers from the Frozen Seas Football League.”
“Coach Karsgaard’s old team.”
Jacyntha nodded. “It says here they dedicated their victory to him. They played in his honour.”
They fell into silence, each one alone in her thoughts for a moment.
“It should have been us,” Karolyse murmured.
Jacyntha nodded. “Next year, it will be.”
“Stay clear of the Dracodile!”
Jacyntha’s shout did no good. Moreaka dashed forward. The humongous thing swung its tail at her as she closed, but she hopped it, dodged a back-handed swipe from a scaly arm, and launched herself at the creature with an enraged bellow. She drove her shoulder pad right into its vulnerable armpit, where its hard carapace didn’t protect it. It gave a painful roar and collapsed.
Mytilan had no footy stadium, but it had a grand central plaza used for civic events that had been fitted out with banks of wooden stands. There were thousands of Xonyxas filling those stands, with a palisaded away-supporters section in one corner. Feet stamped the stands in thunderous appreciation of the feat of courage, strength, and skill. Hisses of anguish sounded from that single corner. It was surely too early for the Salamanders to lose the player that anchored their line of scrimmage.
The Dracodile was in no condition to keep on playing and the ref whistled for a stoppage. In footy, play normally continued around injured players, but when they were big monsters like the Dracodile who required a team of orderlies to shift off the pitch, a pause in the game was often necessary. As the Militantes waited for the big thing to get hauled off, Karolyse slapped Moreaka on the back. “Temple of the Viper, how did you do that?”
Moreaka shot a glance at Jacyntha, no doubt having heard the order to stay clear of the Dracodile. She replied, “A member of the Queensguard can call upon deep reserves of strength, and she certainly knows where to hit such a monster.”
Jacyntha had no argument with that. She said, “Brilliantly done. Does the Queensguard recruit for that ability or do they teach it?”
The woman shrugged. “A bit of both. They certainly trained me but I’m told I showed plenty of willingness to learn.”
Jacyntha said, “You’ve got to teach us all.”
They didn’t get a chance to discuss it further because the ref called the teams into a ruck. Because the Salamanders were in possession before the pause, a Geckoid was given the ball to roll underneath the heaving bodies. Even without the Dracodile, and despite whatever strength Moreaka might call upon, the big Exotherms pushed the Xonyxas back. That same Geckoid who had scored so spectacularly in the first of the friendlies in X’otl, the one with the stumpy regrowing tail, snatched the ball off the ground and retreated to the safety of the backfield. But the Militantes closed in. When they threatened the ball-carrier, “Stubby” danced away from a block and darted cross-field, daring to dash close to Jacyntha. She snagged its shoulder pad but it squirmed in her grasp and stayed on its feet.
“Gimme that!” Ellpay yelled, flying into the fray. She didn’t hit the little lizard; she punched the ball. The boarskin burst from the Geckoid’s hands and hit the pitch. Ell carried on with her run, catching the ball on the bounce and turning up-field, yelling over her shoulder, “Gotcha! Glad I’m notcha!”
The Geckoid gave sharp little movements of its head, looking at its hands, the ground, all around, trying to figure out what had happened. Jacyntha felt a twinge of pity for the poor thing; had she not seen Ellpay’s play with her own eyes, she’d be looking around for the ball too.
Then the twinge of pity disappeared and she threw a block, sending it heels over scaly ass onto the ground. Stubby didn’t return to the game.
The Militantes jogged off the plaza at half-time leading two – nil. “Good execution people,” Umberto said in his dry fashion as they funnelled into the cantina they were using for a changing room. He did applaud them, though, and when they were all settled down eating orange quarters, he said, “Moreaka, you’ve earned the right to face all the opposition monsters from now on!” The players hooted and hollered their appreciation for putting out the Dracodile. “Ellpay, that was a hell of a way to strip the ball.”
Ell jumped up from her seat and wiggled her hips, pumping the air with her hands. “I’m on FYE – Air!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Umberto said. “Keep the showboating to a minimum, see, it’s a friendly. I’ve seen enough from some of you. Belyna, Karolyse, Anahuark, Pillcu: wash up and glad-hand our fans during the second half.” He pointed to four of the more promising girls trying out for the team to take their places.
Anahuark peeled off the captain’s armband and tossed it to Jacyntha, quipping, “The revolution’s dead. Long live the revolution. Here you go, princess.”
Jacyntha had long since gotten used to her teammate’s acerbic sense of humour. She punched the air and yelled, “Eat the rich!”
“PARDON me?” Queen Beatriz’ voice echoed through the cantina. A shocked silence fell over the team and the women shot guilty looks at each other and particularly at the two “leaders”. Then Anahuark snorted, stifling a laugh. The whole room erupted into giggles and guffaws.
Beatriz huffed and swept from the doorway to the centre of the room. The Militantes’ owner, Cassandra Thordwall, followed at a discrete distance, looking pleased. Jacyntha’s mother said, “You are playing well, my daughters. You do your people and country honour. Continue playing with gusto.” Jacyntha watched her mother carefully; such a banal intervention was unlike Mytilan’s Queen. After her regal words of encouragement, Jacyntha’s mother walked around the room and made small talk with each and every player. Then she withdrew with Umberto to a corner and spoke to him.
I wonder what that’s all about.
Before they took the pitch again, Umberto waved Jacyntha over to that same discrete corner. “Don’t take too long scoring. Get the ball downfield to Ellpay or one of the new girls if they’re open.” Jacyntha nodded.
She received the kick-off and did as asked. She waited deep in her own half for Ellpay to come open. When she-who-is-on-fire came open, Jacyntha stepped forward and threw a strike downfield. Ell made a nice one-handed catch and held off a solitary Geckoid sweeper to put the Militantes up three – nil.
Umberto pulled off Jacyntha, Ellpay, and Cuxi-Mikay after that, fielding a team that included seven aspiring rookies. Sitting on the bench, Jacyntha watched the new gals get beaten up and scored on by the Salamanders. Before the next kick-off, she heard Umberto give a girl called Runtu instructions to try a long pass. “I wanna evaluate how you throw in a game situation, see, so when a catcher comes open, give it all you’ve got.”
Only towards the end of the Militantes’ inaugural season did Jacyntha finally feel comfortable trying a pass farther than a dozen paces. She glanced up to the royal box, where her mother sat upon a throne beside Cassandra Thordwall and the Reptilian pachacutec, what they called their ambassadors, a creepy thing that looked as much snake as lizard.
“Is Coach Umberto serious?” Jacyntha asked their assistant coach, Miranda Esquiv.
“Reading you Humans is so difficult sometimes,” the Elf said in her harmonious voice. “I do not know if he is serious, but I think he takes his instructions seriously.”
It all became clear: her mother’s words with Umberto, subbing off so many players, the directive to Runtu. Predictably, Runtu’s pass went astray and the Salamanders recovered the loose ball, scoring just at the death to make the final score three – two to the Militantes. In an elaborate post-game ceremony at mid-field, Queen Beatriz observed to the pachacutec that each team had won its home game by one touchdown, but that the Salamanders had scored two touchdowns in Mytilan, whereas the Militantes had scored only the one in X’otl. She declared that the Salamanders had won the series and she presented a tall, ornate silver cup to a Geckoid called M’xtal M’xtel, who stood only marginally taller than the trophy itself.
Jacyntha subsequently learned from Jasmine’s gossiping that the negotiations on establishing a respected border along the T’zixa’Nija River got off to an excellent beginning later that very evening.
Cassandra Thordwall proclaimed herself happy with the Militantes’ pre-season but said, “There’s just one more piece to add and we’re ready to go.”