CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 13 ♦ Scouts
De Cirque lingered on the waves for a couple more days. Valeriana spent half the time helping out with the chores, such as cooking and cleaning among others, but she devoted some time to practicing what learned from her father in seclusion and under the supervision of the strict troupe leader. The others were, more or less, in the same position, having to be trained in bone-breaking ways—quite literally, in fact—according to the acts they were allotted.
In terms of acclimatizing, De Cirque’s open arms made it easier for Valeriana to become a part of it. While the adjustment period had been no joke, not to mention the occasional depression strikes that came from the guilt and hesitance, Arisce’s constant presence and demands brought her back easily.
Her ‘training’, compared to the others, was lighthearted but that didn’t make it any easier either. Arisce treated each person differently, but she was especially hard on Aliyah. It was understandable. The shortie carried the whole show through and they depended on her for smooth transitions.
“It was fun while it lasted,” Bonjo said as he soaked in the setting sun. “We should be leaving in a couple of days and should arrive in the next town by morning. But we were planning on getting ahead of the troupe to do some . . . scouting. Since you’re the least known face, Valeriana, do you want to come with?”
Valeriana looked at Bonjo. “Really?”
“Yes, the next town will be especially troublesome. Scouts try to see what the troupe needs to be ready for just in case the faction plans something. That means going undercover,” Runner, the young messenger boy, exclaimed. “And the most eligible ones for scouts are those who don’t perform, because that means lesser chances of being recognized and being associated with the troupe.”
“So who usually goes?”
“It differs! But I’m going,” Runner said. “And I’ll have Beard with me. But if you want, you can come with us. You just need to change up your appearance a bit. You’ve already been seen by a faction and they will keep a look out for new faces. It gets a bit dangerous when you’re a scout because the rest of the troupe won’t be there to help you.”
She nodded. “Alright. What should I wear?”
“You’re coming?” Bonjo grinned.
She nodded again, this time with a smile. “I won’t pass up an opportunity to see more of this place. Helps me be more in tune to what I’m actually dealing with.”
“Great! We’re going tomorrow morning really early. We usually change it up and make it so that we go over a week and stuff. Me and Beard usually goes undercover to trade some of the goods that Cat and Lady Arisce makes for extra cash. It helps out the troupe a lot.” The boy beamed.
“What do they make?” she asked. “Do you mean those accessories I saw Lady Arisce stringing the other day?”
“Yes! They make beautiful necklaces! It’s very hard work so we usually cannot release a lot. But when we do, they get bought right up!” Runner enthusiastically explained.
“How do we go?”
“We’ll be brought close to land, then we take out the horses and we set up early so that by morning when people are awake, we can maximize business. By noon, we sell off everything and we get to have time to enjoy the rest of the time while gathering information of course.”
“Sign me up!”
After getting her chores and training done, talking with the beasts a short while and feeding them, Valeriana retired for the night. She didn’t enter the meditative state offered by her jade sphere. Rather, she opted to get some normal sleep so that it would not be hard to awaken during the intended hours. There was no doubt that her father would wake her up, however, she felt that it was very non-physically, non-mentally taxing to enter the state every night. The exhaustion weighed on the soul.
While Valeriana had trouble getting up from bed the next morning, she spent almost no time leaving it. She put on another dress lent to her by Arisce and left out the ponytail this time. It felt strange feeling the honey-blonde locks hair fall over her shoulders, covering her azure blues, and tumbling down her back. It had grown quite long, especially with the more than half a year spent on Valemnia without having it cut. The split ends were horrifying to look at as well.
John had swam close to the shore but did not completely approach it. After grabbing a quick breakfast, they brought out the horses and rode past the rest of the waves. They hopped to another town to drop by a familiar shop and another one before proceeding to the next. Beard kept a sharp lookout for any spies and was efficient enough to lose anyone who dared tail them.
By the time they finished on the town called Cavenor, the sky was lit red while the sun sat afar, ready to launch and soar. The trail to where they were headed next was long, bordered by the same forest that enshrouded each town from another. Valeriana was starting to doubt if they would truly go to where they were supposed to head. She didn’t know exactly which town they were headed to, as even Beard remained firm not to speak of a word outside, just in case there were being tailed.
It had been no problem, really. Valeriana still could detect presences within a radius.
“Are you tired now, Val?” asked Beard.
Valeriana had trouble trying to control the horse at first, however, a few whispers did the trick. Beard and Runner didn’t think twice about what she was doing, as it was indeed imperative to introduce oneself to an animal one intended on riding.
“No, I’m alright.” She shook her head.
“How do you find the new clothes?” Runner inquired with a bright smile as he tightened his grip around Beard’s waist. Their horse wobbled with the weight of a full grown man and a boy while Valeriana’s carried her and the trunk of goods.
“You guys really didn’t have to buy them for me.” Valeriana caught the horse’s tail whipping the wooden pail that dangled by its side. Her brows furrowed.
“You lack dresses and all you wore when you came were pants!” Beard grumbled.
“I’m comfortable wearing pants. I wore them my entire life!” Valeriana muttered, a bit chagrined.
“You look good in dresses though and you should let your hair down some more instead of having it up on a ponytail all the time. You’re really pretty that way.” Runner had a full smile, his eyes twinkling as he eyed the girl’s long, cascading locks.
“What sweet mouth, you little rascal.” Her nose crinkled as she smiled back at the boy.
Valeriana letting her hair down was a rare occasion and the Twelve hardly ever saw her that way—not to mention she even wore a dress.
Thoughts of Valemnia swept in. She wanted a way to have the people of Varialon be freed from this city. Then again, how was she supposed to help them when she could not even help herself? Having everyone leave this place was near impossible.
But not impossible.
“You know how the song goes?” Beard began.
“Which one?” she inquired.
Beard cleared his throat. “I went to the city Varialon, city invisible, but the colors I sought never showed. I worked the lands and the seeds I sowed grew into broken boughs.”
Valeriana was listening intently, however, she gauged out some presence up ahead. She opened her mouth to inform her companions but Beard’s overly loud singing cut her off before she even began. The way he sang reminded her so much of Barver.
“While the gods were within my reach, they NEVER HEARD MY PRAYERS!” he belted, so loud his voice cracked.
“So I stayed in city Varialon and stayed A PITIFUL DREAMER!”
His song ended in a long, vibrating note as the horse’s tail continued whipping the wooden pail. It provided a smooth beat for his music, which was very amusing. Before he could properly end it, however, an arrow whizzed past the man’s head, forcing him to duck.
“Ambush!” Runner yelled.
The horses kicked into a run. The instinct had been ingrained into them long since—to move in a snap of a finger the moment the word was uttered. Valeriana was not ready. Had she not been warned a split second ahead by her horse, she would’ve already fallen back. It was a good thing she was holding the reigns or else she would’ve flown off.
The wind whipped past her face, cool yet suffocating. She had to lean forward and lift her rear a little using the stirrups as it was very hard for the horse to gallop with her bouncing around. She instead focused on balancing herself, her hold on the reigns tight.
“It’s alright, boy,” she cooed into his ears. “It’s going to be alright, just keep on running.”
“Newbie!” Beard and Runner ran a little behind. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay!” she exclaimed.
More arrows zoomed past their heads. When they got off safe from the first wave, gunshots started echoing. Valeriana trembled as the adrenalin forced her into a hyper-drive. She willed her horse to run faster, throwing occasional glances at her companions to see if they were alright.
“Keep your head down and just keep going!” Beard yelled. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop for anybody!”
There were silhouettes in the trees and behind the large, gnarling trunks. She observed their movements and occasionally eyed the path ahead just in case they got something fishy. There was a sharp turn that had them blinded for a moment, which made it too late to see a large line stretched out at their feet.
The horse wasn’t able to react on time. He tripped over. Valeriana was sent flying. While Beard and Runner skidded to a sudden halt, the girl landed on the ground, her body digging through the dirt from the impact. The wind was knocked out from her lungs. When she tried to breathe in, dust filtered through her nose. She coughed and wheezed, rolling about in pain while the world around her blurred into a haze of green and black.
“Missy!” Beard’s voice echoed.
Dark brown hair and green eyes appeared above. Rays of light filtered through the canopy, casting a silhouette on the person before her. Valeriana had to squint when the light hit her eyes as she dazedly watched whoever it was bend on their knees. Hands grabbed her on either side and lifted her up so that she was standing.
Her lips moved to form words, however, not a sound came out.
“Scouts of De Cirque,” the person before her spoke, soft and mellow. It sounded female. “Am I right?”
Her vision finally focused.
Taller than her by a couple of inches, dressed in a bloody red armor and sporting a sheathed blade on her waist. She had a black mask sitting around her mouth and jaw, covering half of her face in exception for her eyes. Valeriana squinted.
“We finally got you.”
“Who are you guys?” Valeriana whispered.
“We are of the Fire Faction,” she said breathily beneath the mask. “I am called Deli, Commander General.”
“I should’ve said we could get ambushed. It happens. We can’t exactly hide because John is too big. We’re like the bright, red center of a target,” Beard stated as he alit his ride while Runner remained atop the horse. Men in red surrounded them with sharply pointed weapons. “But, well, saying that now is too late, right?”
Valeriana wanted to roll her eyes—if only she wasn’t feeling so dizzy. “A little heads up would’ve been really appreciated.”
“Are you alright? You fell of that horse pretty hard.”
“Aside from feeling a little lightheaded, I’m totally fine. Thankfully, I didn’t dislocate my shoulder like the last time.”
“Don’t worry, we’re going to get out of this situation,” Beard said, both hands coming to rest on his nape in surrender. “It’s not the first time. Factions try to kill as many men off their enemies all the time.”
“That’s supposed to be comforting?” Valeriana growled.
“Come down here, Runner. Don’t hurt the boy or the girl,” he said. “Missy.” Beard stared pointedly at Valeriana. “Don’t do anything reckless, in the name of the gods.”
Deli’s green eyes scrutinized Valeriana before turning to her men. “Seize all their weapons. Search them. Tie their hands. Leave the legs free, we need them walking. Make sure they don’t get away,” she barked, nodding at Beard and Runner.
The men moved to obey her orders, however, Deli hit one guy on the back of his head when he attempted to search Valeriana.
“What are you doing?” The masked woman snarled.
“S-searching the captive, C-Commander,” he stammered.
“Who told you to?” She glared.
“No, I didn’t. Did you see my eyes, you lowlife?”
“B-but . . .”
“Get lost,” she said.
Deli whipped out a rope and roughly tied the fifth-ranker’s hands together. Her hand then stuck into Valeriana’s boots to take out the knife hidden inside.
The fifth-ranker flinched.
It was not because the commander was harsh with the rope—although she was. It was due to the brush of skin, initiating a spark of earlier memories. Valeriana remained still so as to not rouse suspicion, but Deli stopped short, shocked by the suddenness of it. She saw a blur of images—hands slipping into red serpentine sleeves as the woman faced the mirror. She looked a decade younger.
“Commander General,” said one soldier. “Are you alright?”
Deli pulled back from the vision, her aura flaring defensively as she stepped back, looking as though she was burned. She glared at Valeriana. “You don’t have anything else?”
A cloud of confusion rose up to Valeriana’s head, but it wasn’t enough for her to lose focus. “You suppose I’ll be honest?”
“No.” She then turned and left. “We’re taking them in. Move along. I don’t want to waste any time.”