CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 18 ♦ Checkmate
Valeriana found herself going through the same scenario two nights after the last. While the fact that they were not treated ill-manneredly did not change, Valeriana’s uneasiness was reaching new heights. Aleser’s mind was a hard track to follow and stumped her several times to the point of seething silence. It was not as though she didn’t have a retort in mind—it was because the man would always shut her down and leave the room. It felt like he was purposely escaping the conclusion of the matter. He would refuse to close the stage unless it was in his favor. Valeriana found herself questioning, not only the morality of the man, but also the soundness of his mind and overall personality.
Aside from the man in charge, she also worried about the lady beside him. Deli remained tight-lipped about her issue with the necklace. It seemed as though, the entire while, Aleser was in the dark. The things taken contained several implications about Valeriana; things she was not willing anyone—aside from the people she trusted—to know. Deli, at the moment, was the last person on that list.
“Why aren’t you talking tonight?” Aleser asked. “You’re terribly quiet.”
Valeriana glared at him. “Because you never let me finish.”
“I give you time to think before you drop your words,” he defended.
“From my perspective, it’s not like that,” she retorted, digging into the fish—which Aleser so very loved—and scowling at both the lady commander and her liege. “And I think about what I say very much. Thank you.”
“From my perspective, it’s not like that,” he shot back. “Your mouth runs faster than your head.”
“And your mouth can’t keep up with your head,” she replied.
Deli cleared her throat, a small twitch on the corners of her lips, which, of course, disappeared as fast as it came.
Aleser gazed at her strongly for at least half a minute and she stared back, determined not to back down. The staring competition lasted a while and none of them intended on looking away until the heavy doors to the dining room burst open to reveal one of Aleser’s men. He crossed the distance from the door to the Fire Faction’s head like lightning, slowing down when he was faced with the silver-eyed man.
He bowed briefly before leaning into Aleser’s ear to whisper.
Aleser’s face didn’t as much as change. “Good,” he finally said, his eyes drifting to the honey-golden blonde sitting far from him.
“What should we do, milord?”
“Nothing,” Aleser stated.
The messenger boy bowed once more before dashing out of the room.
“De Cirque made their move.” His face split into the widest grin as a manic look in his eyes flashed sharper than any knives.
Valeriana trampled on the urge to ask.
Aleser stood. “Delilah, my Delilah! We need to make preparations! Bring that girl to her room at once. Dinner will have to be cut short!” He jumped from his seat as though he’d been pumped with steroids and, while laughing, glided to the door with his feet on fire.
Deli pushed back her chair and moved to follow. However, before she could exit the room, Valeriana blocked the commander’s path and snagged her wrist.
“Return it to me,” she demanded.
Deli gave her an indifferent glance before smoothly and coolly worming out of her grasp. Valeriana was left standing, alone and awkwardly, until the same attendant who had been assigned on taking her back appeared by her side and grabbed her attention. Like the usual, she’d given him the rudest glare she could muster before he calmly walked her back. She, on the other hand, tramped the whole way through.
It didn’t take them very long to reach the room Valeriana was staying in. As soon as the door closed behind her, she called Beard and Runner’s attention.
“De Cirque made their move,” she told them.
They stood, fueled by excitement.
“They did?” Beard inquired.
“Yes,” Valeriana replied. “But I don’t know what they’re doing. That Aleser guy said nothing else.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the bearded man said. “It only means we must prepare for the worst case scenario.”
“But how?” Valeriana asked as she took the seat on the wingchair she’d taken a liking to. “You guys haven’t been doing anything aside from being sloths!”
“And you’ve been doing nothing but having fancy dinner with the enemies,” Beard retorted. “That doesn’t make you any better.”
“Excuse me, what I’ve been doing was important. I was not just having dinner!” she growled. “You don’t understand half of it. Well, anyway, stop bringing things up. What are we going to do?”
“What did they say they will do?” Beard queried.
“Nothing,” she told them. “And, for god’s sake, please don’t shoot me your usual line and say we’re going to do nothing.”
“I never said anything like that,” the bearded man told her.
“The implication was the same!” she argued. “Look, you two, I am sorry if I am being overly panicky and a . . . biatch, but there is something I really need to get back from that Lady Commander.”
“What is it?” Runner asked.
“Something really important that I can’t leave. Even if a door opens back to Valemnia with waiting arms saying, ‘you’re free to go,’ then I still won’t because I’d rather cut my own head off than walk back empty-handed!” she blabbered, her arms flapping in quick, rapid motions to express her sentiment.
“It’s that important?” Beard questioned.
“Those things . . . I will give up my life for them,” she told him, the fire in her eyes. “I can’t not have it.”
“We’ll do something,” Beard said with a sigh.
Runner and Valeriana glanced at him.
“Since you’re so insistent on this one, banshee . . .”
“Stop calling me banshee.” She grunted.
“We’ll pull off a classic act,” the man continued.
“Classic doesn’t mean overused,” Valeriana pointed out.
“Maybe.” Beard shrugged. “We’ll find out.”
“I can’t complain. I’m not good with this stuff.” She pulled the ribbon off her hair and stared at its frayed ends. Valeriana did have her scrunchie with her, but she kept on tying the ribbon to her honey golden locks—perhaps because of the memories it held. It was one of the few things from Valemnia that she actually carried along.
The bearded man combed through his salt and pepper hair. “So.” He flexed his toned arms and straightened his spine. “You’ve been going back and forth those halls. How many guards are there?”
“Every couple of steps,” she said. “When I made my way back, there were a lot less. But there are still a lot.”
“I need an estimate,” he said.
Valeriana stared at him. He still didn’t know she could sense presences so, casually, she probed around her radar and took the estimate he needed. “Within the first twenty-five meters of this room, I’m confident there are six guards stationed on the hall. Two are standing outside our door, two more on the far right, two on the left.”
“You’re surprisingly observant.”
“You like insulting people, don’t you?” She glared at him.
“Well, yes,” he said. “You do, too. Why does that make me an exception?” he shot at her. “Going back to the topic we should be discussing, there needs to be appropriate time to move. I do not think we can be reckless. I’ll think up of something we can do, you two go to bed and rest up.”
Beard’s brows wrinkled. He tried to smile but his lips only gave mere a twitch. Valeriana watched him closely, her brows furrowing as she saw the look of discomfort spread across his face. Runner walked up to him, placing a hand on his biceps.
“Beard?” the young boy concernedly began.
Sweat broke on Beard’s forehead as he blinked numerous times, his eyes widening as though he could not see ahead of him properly.
“What’s happening?” Valeriana muttered. “Beard, are you okay?”
As the fifth-ranker stood to approach the bearded man, he lost his balance. The table in front of them fell over, unable to accommodate his weight and the suddenness of his fall. The plates and glasses shattered as they hit the floor while the rest cluttered and made such loud noises Valeriana had to bite back a scream.
“Beard!” she and Runner exclaimed at the same time as they fussed about.
“For god’s sake, please tell me you’re acting,” Valeriana muttered. “You cannot be serious. This time—”
The door burst open and the guards posted outside their room stepped in to see what was happening. Valeriana knew they were going to come in with the mess Beard made of their dinner so she didn’t bother looking up. What she didn’t expect was to see him frothing at the mouth.
“Beard!” her voice rang, this time, higher.
His eyes, before rolling to the back of his head, locked onto hers and flashed a brief wink.
Her mouth fell open. She bit her lip.
What do you expect me to do?! The question rang inside her mind in horror. The guards must’ve taken her expression as genuine shock as they pulled her up and told her to stand back. Runner was in a spell of confusion when she found his gaze but his eyes glinted knowingly a second after. Perhaps he realized what was happening too.
Just as the guards prepared to hoist up Beard, his long arms shot up and slithered around their neck. This cut off their air supply and any chances of yelling for help. The bearded man turned to Valeriana, the expression on his face enough for her to understand what he wanted.
He needed her help—to knock out the two.
Valeriana couldn’t find anything to hit them with so she threw an arcing kick and slammed her foot hard down their backs. Once or twice of repeated beating, they were knocked unconscious—soundlessly, if she might add.
But there was no time to feel proud of that.
Beard shot to his knees as he pointed to the open doors. Runner ran up and shut them close without making much fuss.
“We only have a minute,” Beard said as he pulled on the armors of one guard. “They’ll start checking in after a while.” He threw the light leather breastplate at Valeriana.
“I don’t know how we’ll do this!” Valeriana’s trembling hands barely managed to grasp the armor. Beard, on the other hand, continued. Though he seemed very calm and efficient, the panic was palpable with his wrinkled face and jerky movements.
“Just . . .” Beard pulled the arm guards free and, once again, threw it at the honey golden blonde. “Help me here.”
“How?” she asked. “I don’t know how to work this thing!”
“Please hurry,” Runner said. “I think they’re coming.”
“They are coming,” Valeriana muttered under her breath. She picked up another two presences coming their way. “We won’t be able to do this in time. We are screwed!”
“Be a little more positive, banshee,” Beard told her.
“I’m trying!” she hissed at him as she fumbled over the fallen guard, her hands flitting about—unsure what to do. “What are we doing anyway?”
“Put it on!” the bearded man replied.
“How?!” she inquired with frustration.
“Are you serious?” he nearly exclaimed but he held back his voice, causing it to crack. “Put it on! Just do it!”
“Stop quoting Nike!” Valeriana cried at him, clumsily pulling over the breastplate. Her shoulder sank at the weight. She had to shift around to adjust it properly—it was a little bit too big for her. That was the least of the problem, anyhow. She could not tie the leather straps properly with how much her hands were quivering. “I need help!”
“Oh for the sake of—”
“Hurry!” Runner said, jumping restlessly on the balls of his toes, just as booming knocks landed on the door followed by loud, demanding voices.
“Runner!” Beard whispered harshly. “Help the banshee!”
“I’m not a banshee!” she gritted out. She nimbly gathered her locks and messily tied it with the frayed ribbon. Valeriana ripped helmet off the guard’s head to put on hers.
Runner’s hands pulled on the straps of her armor and secured them close. The young boy was unexpectedly swift—perhaps this was where he got his name. The pants were pulled up to her waist, the leg guards strapped so quickly she nearly fell over. By the time she actually knew what was going on, the guard they undressed was pulled to the other room with the other one left out cold on the floor.
“What’s happening?!” boomed voices.
The doors burst open. She was seized and pushed down by something heavy. At first, she thought it was the Fire Faction guys—finding out what they were up to. She could not be more wrong. Her eyes shot to meet Beard’s whose fingers she found were around her neck, squeezing it tight. She choked, wondering what he was up to until the bearded man lifted his fist and prepared to punch.
She gasped. “What th—”
“What is this outrage!” yelled one guard.
Beard was tackled by the men of the Fire Faction. He stubbornly fought back. Valeriana had to stand back up weakly, scrambling to her feet as she watched the scene unfold. The bearded man showed extraordinary strength, beating up Aleser’s underlings like there was no tomorrow. She sweated heavily under the armor, her breath ragged with anxiety.
“You! Take and leave with your partner!” barked the guard who continued to wrestle with Beard. “Call in reinforcements!”
It took a few seconds to realize they were referring to her.
She did not question it. She quickly walked up to the guard lying out cold on the floor. Valeriana shot a brief glance at Runner as the boy took several steps back, breathing heavily and nervously himself. The fifth-ranker took the unconscious guard’s arms and endeavored to lift him up. She had trouble as he was very heavy, still, she persevered. Showing her weakness was a luxury she could not afford at the moment.
She dragged out the guard with herself, stepped through doors, deepened her voice, and said, “We need hel—”
Before she could finish, she was pushed aside harshly. She crashed to the floor with the man she was struggling to carry.
“What the hell!” she muttered.
Valeriana found Beard running through the halls.
She was kicked aside—for the second time that minute. Still, it was a good thing. It was a good sign that they did not notice her. The second set of guards who came in to restrain Beard quickly dashed out of the room, setting their sights on the escapee and running after him.
“We order you to halt!”
Beard, eventually, was surrounded by the guards posted on the hall. They drew out their weapons and pointed them at him. He came to a halt, like he was ordered. Slowly, the bearded man turned. He lifted his arms and put them high in the air.
His eyes briefly found Valeriana’s as if to say, “This is your chance.”