A cacophony of live music, excited chatter, enthusiastic laughs, and clashing dishes filled the Cascade Ballroom, the largest that Altador had to offer. It slumbered in dust, except for the occasional banquet or lavish celebration, but every month of Relaxing, it hosted the annual celebratory for Altador Cup teams and affiliates before their departures. Now, Altador Cup XV had ended and the festivities had begun.
Team Shenkuu’s Captain Mirsha Grelinek lingered at the edge of the crowd, drink in hand. She spotted her teammates Antola and Larcy conversing with Team Roo Island’s Lilo Blumario and Jair Tollet; Timu spoke amiably to Team Faerieland’s Delma Harrence and Team Moltara’s Vere Polnicek; and Xana was by the refreshments table with Team Terror Mountain’s Minae Mitora. All athletes were dressed in casual wear, team rivalries dissolved for a night of comradery and celebration. The exception was Team Kiko Lake, who wore their jerseys and flaunted their trophy – third trophy, as Mirsha overheard Poke emphasize. It was astonishing how a group of underdogs snatched three championships when her team had yet to seize one.
She hid a sigh behind her glass. The tournament was one of her highlights of the year, and the adrenaline she felt on the field was unlike any other sensation. Still, when all was said and done, she couldn’t help but feel resigned, discouraged. Another year of training, another year of falling short – at least they had made the top ten.
With a swift glance to ensure no one would notice, she slipped out through the courtyard doors. A breeze carried the salty tang of the sea, tugging at her mane. Boats bobbed in slumber at the pier beneath a sky washed in orange and scarlet, with scattered clouds and the first star winked at her. She placed the glass on the stone railing and stared out to the horizon, noise from the party fading as she retreated into her thoughts.
Team Shenkuu had taken the tournament by storm during their debut. They had rivalled Krawk Island and Darigan Citadel, powerhouses whose performances remained consistent, until their placements began to fall, ranging anywhere from mid-tier to low-tier. Although the Cup remained their goal, they were more than satisfied with a single-digit finish. Their fans remained loyal, and familiar faces comforted Mirsha every year when she entered the colosseum. They waited for victory, as did she, even though she believed no amount of training would break their stalemate.
“Not in a partying mood?” Xana spoke behind her. Mirsha glanced over her shoulder to watch her goalkeeper approach, fluffed tail steadfast against the wind. Although her nerves continued to best her on the field, she was at ease during social events.
“Not at the moment.” Mirsha turned back to the sea when Xana joined her. “You don’t have to stay with me.”
“I didn’t see you, so I knew you’d be out here.” A wan smile lit up Xana’s eyes. “Captain Cellars can’t stop bragging and the other captains are getting annoyed.” Mirsha could hear Krell and Garven’s grumbles above the rest. The laughter that followed definitely belonged to a Zafara she knew all too well.
“Are you thinking about the standings?” Xana asked. “You know we did the best we could. We’re happy with our eighth-place finish.”
Why wouldn’t they be, considering how they finished fourteenth the year before? All the teams were as unpredictable as the fog in Shenkuu – sometimes they’d come out strong and impenetrable, and other times, they’d be a mere obstacle to overcome. “I am, too,” Mirsha said. “On the other hand, have you noticed that eighth is the highest we’ve gotten since our second-place finish? Is seventh attainable? Sixth?”
“Mirsha, try not to think about it,” Xana said gently. “We’re supposed to celebrate today. Why not take a break from Yooyuball and competing and just enjoy this moment? We can worry about that when we go home.”
She wanted to. If she were an ordinary player, she would be like Antola, carefree and relaxed. Standings don’t mean a thing. All I play for is the fans and our team, he’d told her at the start of the tournament. Larcy echoed his sentiment and both played the best that Mirsha had ever seen. She knew Timu and Xana also drifted toward that mindset.
Victory was a distant thought in their minds. It was for Mirsha, as well, but during late nights of caring for their Yooyus, coming up with different tactics and formations, and collaborating with coaches and other teams, she couldn’t help but wish for a reward for all that hard work.
The sound of glass shattering startled her. Their heads swung toward the ballroom and a familiar yellow tail flashed through the air before disappearing into the crowd. Mirsha sighed and pivoted, freezing when Xana’s tail brushed her nose. “I’ll handle him,” she said. “Come join us later, okay?”
“Thanks, Xana.” The goalkeeper hurried back inside, and Mirsha turned back to the sea. She had no idea how Antola could be so reliable on the field and a complete nuisance outside of it. At least Xana could keep him in check.
“He never changes, does he?”
“I’ve given up. As long as he gives me his best during matches, that’s all I ask for.” Mirsha jerked her head to the side. She answered that familiar voice instinctively practised from years of replying without looking. She blinked at the shadows. “Foltaggio?”
He stepped out to join her. His eyepatch was plain, as if he reserved his team emblem for matches, and laurels rested behind his ears. He placed his drink beside hers. “Hello.”
Their teams maintained a mutual friendship, even after Trapper passed the captain role to Foltaggio. They would host several practice matches over the year in both Shenkuu and Altador, but once it came to the tournament, rivalry kept them on their toes. Their members were quick to forgive losses and congratulate victories, but the same couldn’t be said for their captains.
“Congratulations on finishing eighth,” Foltaggio said. “That’s impressive.”
“Congratulations on finishing fourteenth. Tyrannia was a tough opponent.” Likewise, Krawk Island bested Shenkuu at the last moment. Garven was still smug about it.
“Are you returning to Shenkuu tomorrow?”
Mirsha nodded. It was when most teams were scheduled to leave, whereas a few remained to rest longer or enjoy the post-tournament festivities. Foltaggio picked his glass up to swirl the liquid around. “It’s not too early to think about having a practice match, is it?”
“I don’t think it ever is.” They usually discussed business whenever they had a moment to themselves. Mirsha folded her arms across the railing. “Already planned what you need to work on?”
“I think so. Have you?”
“Xana told me I shouldn’t think about it, so I’m trying not to.”
He faced the water. “It’s frustrating. We both finished second in our tiers when we could’ve finished first. Trapper threatens to retire every year but Winberto tells him that he can’t until we win a Cup for King Altador.”
Only one notable athlete had retired after winning a Cup – Dasher Soley. Mirsha had seen him give pep talks to his teammates before matches or sign autographs. She couldn’t fathom retirement. “We were both bested.”
The sun began to set behind the waves. A distant boat travelled through the descending fire, calm and steady. “Do you think we’ll ever win?”
Foltaggio’s question was quiet, reminiscent of the reserved right forward from bygone days. He still had his ninja-like agility and reflexes, evident in his demeanour and playing style. Mirsha watched him, year after year, coalesce into his team, as Timu had, but both still retained elements of their previous teams.
“Who knows? It depends on how well we train.”
“Is it a matter of training? Or is it because we stopped thinking about it? I don’t think anyone can stop thinking about winning – it just becomes something that you stop expecting and you settle for whatever you have. Look at Moltara. Aldric laughs everything off.” Aside from Antola, Team Moltara’s captain had the heartiest laugh in all of Neopia.
“I can’t stop thinking about it as captain,” Foltaggio continued. “Is it my fault that we don’t bring victory home? Do I blame my team? In the end – does it matter? Sure, the Cup is nice to have, but that’s just it. Poke has three. Is he planning on winning enough to give one to each of his teammates? Maybe this is why Trapper chose me to be captain. He doesn’t want to think about it anymore.”
His words were heated and hit Mirsha personally. Her team had surrendered the podium long ago, so she was left alone with her thoughts. Now, here was Foltaggio, voicing everything that was in her mind. Did she have an answer, as the senior captain?
Her reply was slow and measured. “Victory is different for everyone. It could be the Cup, a single victory against a team, or a winning streak during the tournament. I think we, as captains, should be on the same page as our team with what victory is and to aim for it. Still…”
She glanced at him, purple eyes gleaming. “The Cup is a selfish reward. It’s to tell us that what we did paid off. We give everything to our team, so it’s only natural that we want the top prize, isn’t it?”
“That’s true. I…never thought of it like that.” Foltaggio quirked a smile. “It’s a team effort, but in the end, the Cup is for the captain.”
“Why do you think only the captains stand on the podium?”
“I want to see you on it again. Not as a teammate, but as a rival captain, knowing that you beat us fair and square for it.”
Mirsha mirrored his smile. “I can’t make promises, since I, too, want to see you there.”
“That’s expecting too much.” Foltaggio raised his glass. “To eighth place and fourteenth place.”
“To eighth and fourteenth place.” They clinked their glasses together beneath the sunset, joined by the peaceful waters, rowdy athletes, and the exhausted sun. Another year had come and gone, their efforts spent, their determination reignited. Victory was different for all of them, but for Mirsha and Foltaggio, as they turned their backs on the colosseum with a smile on their faces, knowing that their effort was their best was all they needed.