CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 16 ♦ Night and Beauty
Deli spent the next few moments staring until Valeriana tugged it back indignantly. This seemed to have brought her back to reality. While the shock was unmistakable, it was soon drowned by a mixture of displeasure and doubt. The green-eyed brunette eyed Valeriana with tensed brows, her lips flattened as her jaws clenched.
“You cannot have those on you,” the Lady Commander finally said.
“Do not freaking touch it or I will be violent. Punishment or not!” Valeriana threateningly whispered.
“And you think you can resist?” A small smirk tugged on the corners of her lips. “You are still an inexperienced chick. Even if I take those from you, I’ll have no problem.”
“Go on and try. You will have to step on my bloody body first.”
“There doesn’t have to be any bloody body,” Deli stated. “You’ve already handed it over.” She raised her hand and there dangled the necklace stringing the ring and the key. Valeriana gasped, looking at her hands to see that she was holding onto absolutely nothing the entire time.
“How did you—”
“Sleight of hand,” she said in a no-nonsense tone. “You thought De Cirque was the only one who knew tricks.”
Valeriana dove forward. “Give that—”
Deli’s hands moved too swiftly for Valeriana to catch. In the end, she ended up reaching for nothing. One step forward in an attempt to take what she was supposed to protect but that step had been futile. Deli was already past the door by the time she turned to see where the Lady Commander had gone. Her eyes searched for the necklace but Deli’s hands were no longer holding anything.
“If you wish to take it back, do so after dinner,” Deli said as she casually turned and disappeared from her sight.
Valeriana’s anger had already tinted her skin red. She would raise hell and fire for those items, however, she squished her temper and told herself to be patient. She clenched her hands, hoping they would regain some strength after having been weakened by panic and anxiety. Her knees were shaky as she launched forward to catch up.
Guards were posted on the hall, backs erect like armored knights. There were several of them posted every couple of steps. While they made no move as Valeriana followed Deli, she knew they were only waiting for something to happen—she could tell with the way their eyes moved and how they stiffened as she passed. Then again, perhaps that was only because they were faced with the commander.
Valeriana hadn’t gotten the proper opportunity to examine the place she would be stuck in. The halls reminded her of the ones back in Arlandia—of the Ember Palace. The theme was generally the same—a splash of crimson red with bold accents of gold, white, and black. The ceilings were ambitiously high with dangling chandeliers radiating a muted glow. The walls were painstakingly painted with ornate patterns of swirling, elegant lines that thinned and fanned in the most appropriate places.
The sophistication this hall carried told more about the people living in it than they would describe themselves.
Finally, they stopped before doors. One of the guards saw them approaching and quietly snuck into the room while one held out a spear to block their path. Finally, the gigantic barricades budged open and the spear was subsequently drawn back. There followed a stiff salute from the guard.
Deli paid him no heed and walked into the room quietly. Valeriana followed her in.
“Deli, my Delilah,” a deep voice droned. “And the little sparrow,” he continued.
The room, needless to say, was big. Crossing the space to reach the small table Aleser was sitting behind would be akin to crossing an ocean. Valeriana felt her stomach protest at the sight of food, much less at the smell of it. She warily eyed the feast and the man presiding over it.
“Why so cautious?” he asked. “I’m sure you’re famished. I can smell your hunger all the way from here.”
They continued approaching.
“Come, take your seats. We have fish basked in sweet and sour sauce, marinated chicken . . .” Aleser narrated. “Only the best.”
Valeriana took the seat farthest from Aleser, her eyes gravitating towards his Delilah like a hawk eyeing her prey. She was watchful, wondering what the Lady Commander planned on doing next.
To Valeriana’s relief, Deli simply took her seat before the table. Attendants immediately got to work and began serving the food.
“Delilah,” the man affectionately drawled as Valeriana awkwardly watched a male server put some soup in her bowl. It was appetizingly golden and wafted heavy aroma from corn.
Deli’s eyes closed as a hint of displeasure creased her face. “As you know, the hill of De Cirque lingers on the sea of Celine just around the coasts of Avenida and Prevnia. We are still unsure which town they plan on visiting but Prevnia is our biggest bet.”
Valeriana remained quiet but her stomach twisted—they got the correct estimations.
“Well, I do wonder what sort of measures they’re going to take after we’ve taken their precious members captive, especially a new addition—after the last time, of course. That bloody turtle of theirs is such a troublesome beast to handle for all goodness’ sake!”
“And the connection is?”
The blue-haired man waved a hand questioningly. “What connection?”
“Between your first and second sentence. Clearly, I don’t see how it connects,” Deli patiently responded.
“Ah.” Aleser rubbed his jaw. “You see, I was thinking how hard it was to . . .” His moon silver eyes drifted to Valeriana. “Invite our precious guests. It led me to think of how much trouble we ran into dealing with their Giando as well. Somehow, if we can get the big excuse for a turtle to cooperate, everything would be easier for us.”
“The main problem is to get Lady Arisce to cooperate with you, sir.”
“Yes, but that is not just the bloody godsdamned problem,” Aleser stressed.
There was a short pause.
“I forgot where my train of thought was leading. Never mind,” the man dismissively stated. “I have too many problems. I do not wish to enumerate each one of them.” He continued sipping his soup.
Deli spared Valeriana a glance, perhaps wondering why she hadn’t touched her food despite the growling of her stomach, before turning to Aleser. “What do you plan on doing?”
“Me?” The man sipped his soup. “I don’t plan on anything. I’m just here wondering what De Cirque plans on doing. Like always, they make the most interesting responses. Which reminds me of the problem!” he exclaimed. “We still don’t know which town they’re planning on heading next.”
Valeriana could not help but feel confused. How exactly was the wheel in this man’s mind turning? His thoughts could be so jumbled and unrelated.
“I was mentioning that a while ago.” Deli sighed as she stirred her bowl of soup.
“No. It’s different.”
“This girl can obviously tell us if she says it plainly. The problem is how to make her talk.”
“I will talk,” Valeriana said.
Aleser seemed surprised. “Really?”
“I can talk about lots of things—like, um . . . Greek mythology. I don’t claim I’m an expert in that regard, but I know enough after having taken so many classes about it in high school.”
His brows met. “Greek mythology?”
“Yes,” she told him as she nervously swallowed. “It’s mythology from another world aside from Varia—I mean Valemnia. It talks of gods living in Mount Olympus as well as the creation of the universe from the union of Uranus, the sky god, and the earth goddess Gaia,” she started. “And, of course, that’s how it goes. I find it horribly disenchanting, though. It’s full of incestuous crap and unbelievable tragedies. Honestly, it’s all wacko. You don’t even know if your father is your brother or your cousin—maybe he’s all three. Of all the gods, Zeus is the most famous one who can’t keep his sword in the sheath.” She shrugged. “If you get what I mean.”
Deli raised a brow. “Keep his sword in the sheath?”
“He had tons of children from many women although he already had a wife,” she said. “And I think it’s the reason why Hera started looking like a villain—his wife. Which leads me to think of Hercules.”
She continued chattering away nonstop for the rest of the night. After a while, she also started picking on the food and eating her fill. Valeriana didn’t dare say everything she knew, even so, as that would be needlessly firing all the bullets from her arsenal. So long as she could keep these two from asking the questions they wanted to ask—hopefully buy herself and her companions some time, whatever for—then she would feel as though she was doing something.
Aleser seemed all too aware she was trying to distract him, as was Deli, however, they didn’t make any move to protest and even seemed quite taken with her stories.
If there was a good something that Valeriana had, it was her mouth. She wielded her tongue better than any sword.
“So after eight years or something and ten labors, he was asked to steal the apples from the garden of Hesperides. The golden apples belong to Hera and, as you know, Hera hates Hercules because he is his father’s son—but not her own. So again, he needed to fight monsters on his way and all those gods who demand will fight him,” she ranted. “There are many versions, yet again.”
“How can there be so many versions to one story?” Aleser wondered.
Valeriana knew he was not really asking a question but contemplating on the matter. “Because it wasn’t told by only one person,” she said. “And people tend to add a color of their own when they do something. While some things may differ, the substance remain unchanged. It can be similar to the oral traditions.”
“Yes, but that is not what I had in mind.”
Abyss-deep creases appeared on Valeriana’s face.
“With there being so many . . . colors, like you said, wouldn’t that bury the truth?” he uttered.
“Yes, that is true,” Valeriana replied, holding Aleser’s heavy gaze while sporadically glancing at Deli.
“I sometimes think that the reason why it is all so interesting is because of all the colors. But if you were to strip it all—the colors, I mean, will it still be worth telling?” He reached for the glass of wine and downed it in one go. The empty cup hang waiting between his fingers until one of the attendants came forward and refilled his cup. Burgundy splashed forth from the emerald mouth of the bottle, liquid frothing as it surged to the bottom.
“Would it have been told if there was no color of its own?” Valeriana pointed out. “Maybe it’s just the natural way of things—for people to exaggerate the beauty of something, to make it flourish.”
“Falsehood,” he declared, drinking.
Valeriana put her fork and knife down. “What?”
“The perpetuation of lies.”
Deli silently and attentively observed the exchange.
“Spreading sweetness, unable to bear the bitter taste of history and reality,” Aleser said. “Stories—the numbing drug for pain, offering reprieve from the harshness and acerbity of fate.”
“Maybe that’s true. But do you expect a person to remain pessimistic about the future just because of the harshness of reality?” the fifth-ranker argued.
“Pray tell, how does telling stories help?”
“Coping,” she remarked.
“Dreaming,” he countered.
Valeriana gritted her teeth. “It—”
“Think about it,” he said. “And I expect to hear the rest of the eleventh labor and hopefully finish with the twelfth tomorrow.” Aleser stood, throwing his napkin on the table. “Delilah, I need you.”
Deli opened her mouth, seeming to intend to protest.
“That is not open to discussion,” he quickly followed, tugging on the trimmed suit as his coattails fluttered behind him. The doors were cracked open for the man, the guards saluting as he passed.
The Lady Commander stood, waving to an attendant as she studied Valeriana’s reaction. “Lead her back,” she ordered and was given a nod.
“Hey!” Valeriana shoot from her seat but the woman was gone the time she stepped forward. “God . . . damn!” she exclaimed.
The attendant cleared his throat. “Excuse me, miss. I shall lead you back.”
“Just like that?” She glared at him.
He remained frustratingly calm. “Apparently,” he replied. “Shall we?”
She stomped the way back until she got tired of exerting the extra force from her legs. Beard and Runner were waiting when she arrived, food served on the table. Surprisingly, not a bit of it was touched.
“Newbie!” Beard looked relieved as he stood to greet her, sharply eyeing the retreating attendant who led her back. “I thought—”
“I’m okay,” she asserted, seething. “They told me to have dinner. I had no choice but to comply.” She plopped on the nearest chair. “That . . . evil . . . sunuvabeetches!”
“What happened?” Runner inquired. He looked beyond worried but did not dare approach the girl.
“He’s like this agitating turtle with really sharp teeth. He bites you and then hides when you try to knock some sense into his brain!” she told them. “And that woman is—I don’t know how to say it. I don’t want to say it! She took—”
“What?” Beard seemed confused. She looked at him and could not find the words.
Her elbows came to rest on her thighs as she leaned forward, her face buried into her palms. “Ah, god. I have to get it back.”