CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 22 ♦ Candor and Verity
The soft fabric brushed against Valeriana’s thighs, flaring stunningly around the waist. The fit was snug and the sleeves wrapped aptly an inch down her shoulders before drifting inward into a wide-mouthed V on her chest—what the tag insisted on calling a ‘bardot neckline,’ however it was pronounced. It was a little bit too revealing for her taste but the mirror did a good job changing her opinion.
She strapped the dagger around her thigh, smoothing down the thick folds of the skirts afterwards and nervously looking at Beard. After telling him what would happen, he voiced out his doubts—whether or not the Lady Commander could be trusted. However, she knew it was sincere and true. The woman’s eyes held nothing but the truth.
Besides, no one else but a Celeste could say elón ad vortem with enough conviction to move a mountain. The coldness in Deli’s eyes, despite Valeriana not wanting to admit it, was sharper than the girl’s mouth and the firmness behind her words would prove harder to budge than any tank.
“You know what happens tonight?” Beard fixed his suit.
The six guards Deli said would be escorting them were standing outside the door. They’ve been standing there for quite a while.
“Aside from trouble?” Valeriana tiredly replied as she simultaneously slipped into the mid-heeled shoes and gathered her hair to its trademark ponytail.
“Don’t tie your hair!” Runner exclaimed, approaching Valeriana. “You look prettier with it down.”
“You know what to say to a girl,” she told the boy, letting her honey-golden locks tumble back down on her back. Although they were fairly straight, they bobbed at the ends. “It’ll be easy for you to get a girlfriend when you grow up.”
“Girlfriend?” his brows knitted curiously.
“It’s a term for lover.” She winked at him.
“Come here, let me fix you.” She tousled his brown hair, brushing back the curly locks sitting atop his head. They were untamable. He honestly didn’t look bad with them and as a kid he looked cute.
“Want me to put your mask on for you?” Runner offered.
“Please.” She knelt to his level and let him fix her mask.
She felt small tug and a whir of ribbons being pulled in place. “Come here, I’ll do yours,” she said, taking his mask from him after he was done.
The clock made noises as it struck twelve, indicating it was already six in the evening.
The door opened. The guards filed in.
But they didn’t look like guards. They were dressed as civilians.
After what happened last night, she expected that the security would be tighter around them. It still made sense, however, with the involvement of Deli and the fact that there was a bigger lion in the den—namely De Cirque. They would be focusing on the larger threat than the cubs they already held captive.
She wondered what made Deli so angry and revengeful—how she got to become the Lady Commander of the Fire Faction. Things were starting to seem more complicated than what it first was.
They were led out of the room and Valeriana stumbled on her heels. “Crazy . . . little . . .” she muttered.
“That’s not the highest I’ve seen and you’re already tripping,” Beard commented.
“Shut it. I’m not a heels person,” she snapped at him, lifting the skirts of her knee-length dress as though doing so would improve the situation. Valeriana knew all too well the problem wasn’t with the dress but her own two legs. “I can kick the ass of a demon and I can beat up Corvan, but to all the gods, heels are not my thing. Beyoncé, how do you even dance with these?” she grumbled.
“Who’s Beyoncé?” Runner asked.
“A queen,” she replied.
It was a long walk to the procession hall. Valeriana nearly faceplanted a couple of times along the way. Thankfully, it hadn’t happened yet.
“We’re here,” said one of their escorts.
They went through a small door greeted by a winding staircase and a long, opaque curtain blanketing the view beyond the rails. They were then pushed down the stairs and through the thick curtains. Valeriana had to stagger when her eyes landed on the so called procession hall.
When Deli said it was big, she meant ginormous. It was as almost as large as the grand arena back in the academy. The dome soared ten stories high, a dapple of rainbow-stained glass sputtered around the high walls swallowing nearly the entire ceiling. There was a quiet glow that filtered through. The light seemed almost alive behind it.
Valeriana wanted to admire to beauty a little bit longer but the tug on her upper arm forced her forward.
“Hey, quit it.” She jerked her arm free from the guard’s hand and walked. After having practiced the entire way through, she was confident she had more balance with the shoes she was using—as much as a newborn deer would.
A big stage was set up at the front, draped and riddled with velvet curtains and colorful fire. The seats weren’t layered like a normal arena, rather, it resembled more of a theater. A balcony curved like a woman’s neck near the stage, offering a bird’s eye view of the coming performance.
There were already quite a lot of people when they entered, all wearing masks. The buzz of conversations layered in reverberations.
“What is this place?” she asked. However, she didn’t expect to be answered.
They were guided down the carpeted aisle before the guards cut in between them and forced them apart. Seeing Runner get taken away made Valeriana’s heart ram to her throat.
“Where are you taking him?” she inquired, intending to run after the boy.
“A separate seat, now don’t make a scene.”
She wanted to struggle, however, the threatening hold and gaze of her escorts forced her to keep her silence.
She was seated somewhere in the front row—not so very front that the stage was right in her face. Both her escorts sat down on either side, basically caging her in.
Valeriana swallowed as she smoothed down the skirts of her dress. Her ‘escorts’ were attentive and kept watch of every little thing she did. She sat restlessly, trying to search for any sign of Runner and Beard, however, they did a good job hiding them from her line of sight.
It lasted like that for ten minutes or so until the entirety of the audience was swept with silence, only to be broken by the sound of them standing. Valeriana was forced to play along, her gaze following people’s line of sight.
Aleser had come with Deli. As expected, they were on the balcony accompanied by a number of guards.
All that was needed was a wave of his hand for everyone to drop back to their seats. Valeriana hated having to stand for a crazy man she did not respect, however, she had no choice. She glared at Aleser as she sat back down. Even if he wasn’t aware of the daggers she was sending his way or even if it would not do anything worthwhile, it still made her feel a little better.
The lights centered on the stage and everything else dimmed. It seemed Varialon was not very behind on technology.
Valeriana was tempted to just watch the stage, her stomach turning from the anticipation of seeing the members of De Cirque. However, she wanted to see what Deli and Aleser were doing. After what happened a while ago, thoughts of the Lady Commander’s so-called revenge filled her mind.
“By the gods,” she whispered.
The loud, familiar voice of the announcer they called Thunder broke into the room, ruling above all other noises. Thunder’s voice has always had a deep, soothing baritone that would satisfyingly reverberate in the ears whenever he opened his mouth. His voice alone would be able to carry the entire show through.
“Mardiya!” he exclaimed. “A first time in years!”
The enthusiasm of the people was hardly anything worth glossing over but this did nothing to lower Thunder’s energy. He continued talking, as was his job, while the curtains parted to reveal Aliyah. As usual, she was the first face to greet the people. Despite being so petite and short that she was pretty much a dwarf on the stage, her presence demanded the attention of the audience.
Last time she saw Aliyah enter the ring, she entered it with Nuri and Kaai, the two flaming horses under the care of De Cirque—the Adriedes. What made tonight so different?
Eerily, every source of fire in the room became tinged green and her powerful voice echoed.
“To honor the faction of fire—” Valeriana nearly vomited. “—and for your entertainment tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we have prepared a special routine.”
Valeriana had to lean away when a nearby torch flared with so much energy, feeling the uncomfortable warmth. On the stage, a threatening heat enveloped Aliyah. She was reminiscent of Corvan whenever his anger would overtake him and the flames would freely burst at his skin. The sight of her bathed in fire brought back memories which so vividly played behind her lids.
Aliyah raised her hands and got into a stance. However, before she could step into whatever performance she would do, the curtains drew close.
“Wait, what?” Valeriana looked around, confused.
Everybody else were, too.
The curtains opened once again, creaking noises high-pitched on everyone’s ears. The irritation was palpable on Aliyah’s face as she opened her mouth once more.
“As I was saying—”
Before she could finish, the curtains shut close once again.
“This is not funny,” Aliyah stated, her voice way softer but loud enough for everyone to hear.
Valeriana had to chuckle. Although she felt embarrassed on behalf of the troupe, the expression on Aliyah’s face was priceless. The flat tone of her voice was criticizing, making the execution effective.
After a few heartbeats, the curtains parted halfway for the third time. But just when the first vibration escaped Aliyah’s mouth, it shut close.
There was a chorus of amused chuckles, but not enough to stir full-blown laughter.
“What is happening?” Aliyah’s voice whispered harshly. “Do something about this. Now,” she demanded.
There were fluttering footsteps behind the curtains followed by visible movements around the fabric’s large body, probing and tugging. The curtains were forced to part manually and the expression on Aliyah’s face when she was finally back to the spotlight could not be painted. Her frown was so ugly they all could not help but give another laugh.
Aliyah tried opening her mouth. In response, the curtains inched forward.
She glared at it. “You’re having fun at this, are you?”
The audience laughed.
It inched close once more.
“You’re testing my patience not to cut you down.”
The curtain did not respond.
For a bit of reassurance, she gave it a few more rounds of her trademark scowl. “As I was saying—”
The creaking sound returned, however, this time, the curtains didn’t draw close. Instead, it was sent loose from its hinges and was sent crashing down on Aliyah. The large and heavy fabric sent a large gust of wind to all directions as a squeak of shock came from the girl of the green fire.
Valeriana gasped. Everyone else started laughing.
Before she could find out what happened next, a small compartment opened on the floor and she was dragged underneath. Since it was pretty dark and the audience were focused on the stage, they would’ve not noticed a fellow from the crowd just falling through the floor.
“What the hell—”
“Quiet now,” Aliyah’s voice harshly echoed in her ear.
“What are you . . .”
“It’s a switch.”
“No time to explain. Just get up there.”
“What am I supposed to . . . how is this even possi—wait, Aliyah,” she held her arm. She surreptitiously took the crumpled map from around her thigh and passed it to her.
Aliyah seemed to get it. “You really didn’t need this.”
The other girl took the map off of her hands and tucked it under her coat.
Valeriana was then pulled through the room underneath the procession hall where everyone crept as silent as a mouse. The floor to the stage was hatched open where, among the haze of movement of the people trying to unearth Aliyah, who’d been buried underneath at the fall of the curtain—or so they thought, Valeriana was shoved in her place.
“I see her!” exclaimed Jester’s voice as the audience laughed once more. The curtains were pulled and tugged.
Hands accidentally pulled on her hair.
“Ow!” Valeriana exclaimed.
The audience burst into laughter.
“Jester, how many times did I tell you not to wear those pants?!” exclaimed the other person on the stage.
The laughter turned even more vibrant.
Finally, the curtain was pulled off Valeriana, leaving her sitting awkwardly and confused on the floor. She smoothed down the skirts of her dress as she was pulled to stand on her feet. Her wobbly legs nearly didn’t have enough strength on their own.
She had a bad case of stage fright.
There was a round of gasp.
“Ali—you’re not Aliyah!” Jester exclaimed.
Valeriana glanced at both men who were helping her stand. One was Jester, the other—Aoute?
Knife boy gave her a smile.
Valeriana was quite surprised to see the boy onstage. As far as she knew, Arisce didn’t allow Aoute to perform—until now.
“Where’d she go?” Jester scratched his head.
“I don’t know but at least she had a replacement,” Aoute said, then leaned in to subtly whisper in her ear. He pretended to kick the curtain as he turned his back to the audience. “You’re taking over Tyson.”
“I—what?!” she exclaimed.
Jester gave her a brief glance and silence swept by. Valeriana looked around, startled. Having the bright lights shone on her eyes made it hard for her to see the audience below but that didn’t make the situation any better. She found herself looking at the balcony where Aleser and Deli were. Despite the distance and the fact that it was hard to see past the stage, she caught a gleam of interest in the man’s moon silver eyes—a look of challenge. Deli told him something referring to Valeriana, taking into account the gesture of her hands, as a man came forward as though to receive his orders. Aleser held up a hand and stopped them mid-sentence.
The fifth-ranker wasn’t sure of what he said but he seemed to have mouthed something along the lines of, “Let it be. Didn’t we talk about this?”
“Looks like she doesn’t know how she got here. Can’t say I blame her,” Jester commented, pulling her back to the current situation and basically saving the entire show.
The audience laughed.
Valeriana didn’t find the humor in the situation. However, seeing as she was already in it, she didn’t have any choice but to play along.
“I think we found her!” Jester said as he pointed to the crowd, moving across the stage to call attention to the raised hand. “Aliyah, what are you doing over there?”
“Apparently, I’m not qualified to perform,” the other girl replied, annoyance a thick coat on her voice.
Another round of laughter coupled with applause.
The guards who escorted Valeriana seemed shocked to find that the person they were supposed to be looking over had been switched with the lady on the stage. Valeriana was not sure if it they were acting or they were genuinely surprised—but, seeing as they were her ‘escorts,’ they should’ve been in on the joke.
“The curtain chose her,” Aliyah added.
That’s bullcrap, Valeriana mentally screamed as she sweated, her knees trembling. Still, she kept it together and was able to outwardly remain calm. Her entire anatomy, on the other hand, was acting as though a huge earthquake had come.
“The all-knowing curtain has spoken,” said Jester. “So what makes you so special, miss?”
There was no microphone yet the voice seemed to echo naturally whenever she willed it to. It must be because of how the stage was built or because of the mechanisms installed around it.
She looked around. “I’m not sure . . .” she trailed off. “I don’t think I’m really special,” she said. She caught Jester raising a brow. “If I’m going to be honest, there are many people in this room who are better than me. However . . .” She looked around.
As if on cue, a second layer of curtains opened behind them. A colorful backdrop featured the majestic twin-tailed lion of De Cirque, Tyson, standing behind them. His sudden appearance made the audience gasp, screams of shock and fright echoing in the background.
People were afraid of the beast.
While there was no doubt some of them had seen the performances of De Cirque, it cannot be helped that, with the bad relationship between the faction and the troupe, some had never gotten the chance. With the celestial beasts being quite a rare sight in Varialon, there was no doubt people would be afraid of them as well—like humans would seeing a mythological dragon.
But, in this room, Valeriana could say that no one else aside from the members of De Cirque and Deli knew them very well.
She gazed at the lion in the eyes and found a genuine smile on her lips. The beast approached her with the brightest eyes she’d seen so far. Although she could talk to and understand them, Tyson was among the hardest to win over. The entire time she’d tried talking to him, he gave her the silent treatment. However, he did what he had to and was asked to do—just not the things he thought to be unnecessary. He had a willful, stubborn personality—doing the things he wanted and ignoring the things he didn’t.
She’d never touched him. Or pet him.
As he continued to approach, she stepped forward as well. There was utter silence in the entire room—so silent that one would be able to hear the whispers of the night breeze outside.
Valeriana held out a hand, her fingers stuttering inch after inch. He met her eyes, dropped them tamely, and made no move to back away as her fingers alighted on the soft fur.
Chatter rose in the air. Even Valeriana was surprised—pleasantly.
Even if Tyson was putting up a show, she was happy to have, at the very least, touched him.
“People have heard tales of many worlds existing outside of Varialon. You may not believe it if I say that it is real. No sane person would believe things they’ve never seen with their own eyes,” she said as she turned to face the audience. “But, for now, believe.”
The cold fire escaped from Tyson’s mouth as his wings flexed behind him. It flew to the ceiling, above everyone. People twisted their bodies to follow where the flames floated, awed as it curled into an image of the world beyond.
“The world is divided into seven continents,” she began. “Arlandia.”
The fire flickered to the continent of Arlandia. She stared at it for a moment, remembering the adventures that had taken place there.
“Aetheria, Larkovia, Denovegasia, Arlandi—I said that,” she stated.
The seriousness was too much and the sudden slip made some people quirk a smile and give a chuckle.
“Sorry. Let me try again—Arlandia, Aetheria, Larkovia, Denovegasia, Preluresia, the Central Continent, and the Dark Continent.”
The flames surprisingly morphed into the image she wanted it to be. However this thing worked, she was glad it was working properly.
“After the Great War that plagued the world four thousand years ago, a unified kingdom rose under King Friedel. Up to this day, his descendants carry the crown. At the moment, however, the power over the other continents are given to the noble families who run them in his family’s name—the Rosellevienne. All six continents are a unified kingdom. Except for one. The Dark Continent of demons.”
There were gasps as the fire showed silhouettes of narrow-toothed demons up to clawed men.
“However, I want to tell the tale—not of these families or their enemies—but of their current heirs.” She shrugged. “And a few extra.”
Tyson seemed to know what she was thinking. Twelve people stood on a line. They varied in heights and apparent gender.
She’d told some stories of her experience with the Twelve to the beasts. She didn’t know Tyson was listening—but that was no longer important.
“Children of these noble families are required to attend an academy for knights—Celeste Academy. But aside from passing and graduating, it is imperative they finish as the best students. You can call it their rite of passage,” she told them. “They fight for and defend a rank within the esteemed Celestial Twelve, who are, obviously, made up of twelve people. You’re about to hear one of their adventures.”
Valeriana sighed, trying to thicken the skin around her face. “The City of Loquin in the continent of Preluresia had been taken by a half-demon named Tod—a story for another time. After having helped in the taking back of the city, the Twelve set on the path to return to the academy. However, a bigger problem stood on their path.”
She proceeded to tell the story of their encounter with the Gilerads and their discovery that the guardians had been turned into demons. The images were still clear and vibrant in her mind—the way the ice broke and hardened as a part of a curse, how Amril and Cifaro fought, and the death of her companion.
Valeriana had zoned out, drunk in the intoxicating memories. Her hand continued to stroke Tyson’s fur as the fire split, blazed, and transformed under each word that left her mouth. The audience seemed enraptured as the story unfolded but Valeriana had stopped trying to tune in to their reactions. As the events reached its apex, they were pulled in by the stiffening tension and suspense that hung in the air.
And in one moment, she finished, “It was Cifaro.”
There was silence and the people seemed suddenly emotional.
“You know, I have never realized it until now,” Valeriana said. “Right at this moment.”
They waited for her next words.
“The world of Valemnia is like one, very big person. These spiritual facets act like the different points on a person’s aura. They welcome energies and allow you to wield the element you have. The guardians are responsible for keeping these spiritual facets safe as they symbolize the balance, but even the guardians themselves are the balance,” she said. “These facets don’t open except during a certain season. The beasts carry a weight of the scale and keep things moving until it does. While you hunt them down, a world is suffering and is in great peril. The same thing happened during the Great War when the drakons, the Arlandian guardians, were wiped out. Do you know who stood in their stead?”
The audience glanced at her and back at the images flashing within the flames.
“The twin-tailed lions.”
She looked at Tyson.
“One of them is standing before you. A bearer of the weight of fire.”
Tyson’s wings unfurled. A majestic sight. His wingspan was large it took nearly half of the stage. Valeriana’s fists tightened further that her nails were near to drawing blood. Her voice firmed and wavered, giving more depth and body to her story.
“And he is stuck in a circus performing for you because his safety cannot be reassured,” she spoke firmly. Her eyes drifted to the balcony where Aleser sat. “Valemnia is suffering.” She felt needles prickle her nose as her eyes stung. “You may not see it, you may not feel it, but there is a piece of this world that is present where you stand.
“You know the gods. They walk amongst you. They may not show themselves. You may not believe. You may consider this another myth. But this, I can tell you, you don’t know what allows you to wield the elements. You don’t know where the balance lie. And if you continue to hunt these beasts down, there will come a day the sky will fall on your heads. Then, it will be too late to do anything.
“You can do something, though. That is—do nothing. Give the Vileamis Niemu the respect they deserve. Their deaths will mean nothing but your destruction except to serve your greed. Keep hunting them and the pillars which probably support this city may just as well crumble.”
“Believe or to not believe. That’s your choice.” Valeriana took a deep breath. “Thank you. For tonight, that is all.”
They retreated to the backstage, leaving a stunned audience behind. Tyson’s fire died and left the room hauntingly cold.
But as they disappeared, a clap resounded. Then another came. And another. A commotion rose among the people and the procession hall was drowned with applause. Valeriana was sweating. The adrenalin rush she was feeling onstage faded and she fell on her knees the moment she was finally out of sight. Tyson continued to remain on her side, supporting her when she fell over.
She gazed at him.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile.
Hands gripped her arm and pulled her up, straight into an embrace. “Well done, my dear. You’ve done beautifully.”
Valeriana nodded and welcomed the scent of lilies.