CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 28 ♦ Chances
Her money landed on her palm before she could wrap her mind around the coincidence. It hadn’t been more than a week since the incident in Mardiya. Rumors have been going around and they were a mix of truths and lies. Some parts were distorted beyond reason but the general idea was there—De Cirque performed, for the first time in years, in Mardiya where a trap was laid by Fire Faction. The interference and arrival of the Spirit Faction steered things to a different scenario than imagined and trouble raged like fireworks for the rest of the night.
“Well, what a surprise to see you here. I happen to recognize you,” said the Lord Commander Raegan. “Quite a coincidence.”
“Thank you so much, your help is appreciated,” she began. “It’s a small worl—city.”
“Yes, that is true. What brought you to Lavanya?” The dark-skinned man folded his hands. Strength and grace in one sweep.
“Personal business and hopefully good relations,” she replied and lowered her voice, realizing they had attracted quite a lot of attention. When her eyes met their audience’s, however, people quickly diverted their gaze. She turned back to the commander. “Thank you for returning my money. I don’t know what to do without it. Now, if you would just excuse me for a bit.” She took out the coins she and the vendor agreed upon and handed him the money. “Here you go, sir.”
“Why thank you, miss.” He took the coins and calmly dropped them in the drawer he pulled right out. “You’re acquainted with the Lord Commander?”
“I know who he is,” she said.
“I see. Let me get this wrapped up for you.” With a suave stroke of his beard, he gingerly picked up the pair of earrings and a pretty little box from his hidden compartment.
“Thank you!” she said.
“Have you had anything for lunch?” Raegan asked.
Valeriana turned to the commander, cocking a brow in suspicion. “You didn’t purposely steal from me to make me indebted to you, did you?”
“No.” He smiled wryly. “Why on Earth would I? It was truly a coincidence. What brought this on?”
“Well, it can’t be helped that I’ve just been abducted a week ago.”
“And you don’t seem that rattled at all. If you were wary enough, would you have come to Lavanya?”
“Worse things have happened,” she told him. “These are desperate times. I was relying on the chance that De Cirque and your faction aren’t enemies. And you won’t believe how much I’ve gone through the past year. You can’t blame me if I’m a bit suspicious.”
“Then I shall swear upon the name of Aether that I have absolutely no ill intentions,” he said.
“You can listen to him. He’s an honest man,” the vendor said. “I can vouch for him. If he deceives you, you can have anything you want from this stall.”
Both brows rose. Valeriana’s azure gaze shifted to the vendor, demanding his sincerity. The only reply she got was a warm smile—the same one that greeted her when she shuffled towards his stall. It hadn’t been a bad decision coming to him as she learned about what she needed to learn. The only thing that unnerved her was the uncanny coincidence. Varialon was indeed a small place and being in Lavanya lifted the chances but this tickled her wariness. She could not help but be skeptical.
“How about you give me this one for free?” she said.
The vendor only laughed.
“Just kidding. But I’ll hold onto that offer.” She turned to Raegan. “Where to, Lord Commander?”
“The tea house,” he replied and they went on their way through the streets that resumed churning the moment their feet took to action.
It was not a far walk. The tea house was situated in the higher end of the town with flashier stores, less stalls, and more glassed front doors. The pavement was significantly more well-maintained than that of the previous place they had been to.
Definitely the rich people’s district.
When they got to the tea house, a petite girl came up to them and offered them a private room out of earshot. Raegan was offered the utmost hospitality and the finest service the moment the tip of his shoes kissed their territory.
Valeriana had seen finer things so she was not very impressed. She’d seen soaring palace walls and guards stiffening at the sight of certain people. She’d met a grander king who, despite the height of his position, still managed to lower his head and kneel on the ground that lie quiescent beneath him.
It was baffling how, more often than not, those who stood high remained low and those who remained low stood high.
The calm and unruffled demeanor of Valeriana seemed to pique the interest of the Lord Commander. Valeriana caught onto the look he shot at her when he turned and that he seemingly held himself back from asking questions until they settled on the comfiest of lounges and the tea was poured. A soothing scent of herbs rose from the brew—a sweet blend of honey, lemon, and chamomile.
Valeriana honestly preferred coffee over tea but its soothing effects and the habit of the people she knew influenced her to partake in the many breaks they took for the drink—Lord Aeron in particular and the Twelve.
“Only high quality leaves steeped to perfection,” Raegan said.
She did not reply and sipped from her drink. It was not very strong and had flavors that was light on the tongue. It was mellow and relaxing, easing the knots on her muscles and significantly lowering her guard.
Unfortunately, she’d tasted richer flavors back in the academy. Charles made such good brews and Lord Aeron’s palate only catered to vivid, resonating piquancy when it came to tea. These were quite insipid compared to what the Twelve and the court leader drank.
“Your opinion?” Raegan inquired as he lightly sipped from his cup and set it back down to the table along with the saucer.
“It’s alright?” The commander chuckled. “This is the best tea in all of Varialon.”
She raised a brow.
“I see.” Raegan smiled. “I hear Lady Arisce saying tasteless in the back of my mind but since she has nothing better, she puts up with it and drinks it to the bottom.”
“Well, I’m not a tea guru so it’s alright for me,” she said.
“But do you think it deserves its name?”
“Like I said, I’m no expert. I don’t think my opinion is worth considering. But there are other things you wish to ask me, right? Why not tell me what they are?”
“Small talk doesn’t work for you, then.”
Valeriana didn’t reply and waited for him to get to the reason he asked her to join him for lumch.
“You know the bad thing about being in a circus?” he began. “It’s that people you are trying to convince are thorn between reality and fantasy. They don’t know what’s real and what’s not. Confusion gives rise to doubt and doubt is never stable. I hope you understand my sentiments on this. If it continues, the goal will never be achieved.”
“What exactly is the goal?” Valeriana asked.
“The people,” he told her. “And believing. Do you think that telling stories will actually convince them?”
“If there’s one thing I know, it’s that once people are set on a truth, it’ll be hard to change their views. The only thing to make them accept it as reality is to make them experience it,” she said. “And even then they will find faults with it to reason with to justify what they know. They will insist on what they believe in until the truth slaps them and stomps on them so hard they lose their wits. I should know.” She took a huge gulp from her cup and sighed.
“You should know?” Raegan smiled.
“I get your point. Some things De Cirque does don’t make sense. I don’t understand the purpose of the circus either and I don’t understand what goes on in Arisce’s head,” she said. “Speaking of not understanding, I remember Lord Aeron—she’s like Lord Aeron in girl form,” she muttered. “Anyway, she may be crazy but in a very refined and not outright kind of way.”
“That is true.”
“But I think it’s a less aggressive way of making people accept something they don’t believe. Start with something surreal—I somehow get it.”
Raegan leaned back, musing over her words. “You don’t agree with telling outright?”
“Because obviously no one will believe you. I’ve seen it happen. Claim something that contradicts what people are used to and they will label you crazy.” She shook her head. She’d seen far too many movies. “Belief starts with doubt. It may not be stable but it’s a start. Doubt leads to curiosity and curiosity leads to discovery. What is better for slowly acquainting and familiarizing than stories from a group of entertainers who everyone goes to see? I did not understand the meaning of it all but now I somewhat do. De Cirque is bizarre enough. So bizarre it seems normal. Ironically.”
“It is no wonder you were accepted in the circus, you have a very similar mindset.”
“The last thing I need is you calling me crazy.”
“I already know I am, that’s why I’m telling you,” she told him. “I don’t know why you insist on hanging out with a bunch crazy fools but I’ll say thank you for your help. I feel bad that Arisce turned you down like that and didn’t bother saying it herself—you even went through all of that.”
“It’s a miscalculated move on our part. It was foolish and potentially disrupting. Not saying thank you was a given.” There was a long pause. Raegan seemed to be thorn between opening his mouth and closing it. “Lundie and Maridie—what are they?”
“Curiosity. Nothing else.”
“Then why should I tell you?” She casually drank her tea.
“Because I believe this has something to do with the other world,” he told her. “And that it has a role to play in the opening of the borders. A perfect balance,” he said.
Those two words again.
“All elements aligned with perfect harmony and balance, united in their very essence. What can this be other than the beasts?” he continued.
Valeriana bit her lip and looked at her steaming cup of tea. The calming scent no longer had any effect. “I don’t know. You should be asking Arisce that, don’t you think? I’m not the one you should be coming to for this.”
“She remains vague and cryptic. She never gives straight answers.”
“What do you think makes me any different?” She took another sip with finality. “Thank you so much for the tea but I think I should get going.” She got to her feet and launched toward the door. She didn’t want to stay a second longer.
“But you are a breacher, aren’t you?”
Valeriana stopped. Was it that obvious?
“You should have an idea as to what this perfect balance is.”
She had no idea at all. She didn’t know enough about the borders to truly come up with something.
“No,” she found herself saying.
“No, you’re not a breacher?”
“No, I have no idea.” Valeriana turned to face him, meeting the stern gaze and gritting jaws. “I came here for a reason. You, as well, have a reason why you’re still here. Why don’t you think about that before you try to leave?”
He did not understand. Raegan’s gaze drifted to the floor, his eyes misted with deep thought.
“Okay, maybe that was a little bit . . .” Perhaps it was a bit insensitive of her to say that. She tried renewing the conversation and attack it from another angle. “Look, as far as I know, I was only given a one-way ticket. Don’t you think that pushing the problem to breachers, expecting them to solve it, helps at all? We’re all stuck in here. It’s not about not knowing about the other world.”
Raegan’s stiff shoulders lowered at her words and he looked a bit disappointed. The troubled face turned even worse, his hands flying to straighten the crease between his brows.
“Think about it. The lock is not outside of Varialon. The borders are there for a reason. The ones to open it are the people inside. Not those from Valemnia.” She rubbed her nape problematically. “If you think I have the answers to your questions, you’re wrong. I’m just as clueless as everyone is.”
“You’re right,” he said. “Perhaps you are right. I’m sorry for my insensitivity. I get your point. You told me what I needed to hear.”
“Maybe she just wanted you to realize.” She nodded. “Well, I still have a job to do so I should get going.”
“Why not have our faction help you? You must be here for a reason.”
“No, thank you. It’ll be absurd,” she told him.
“Have you not gotten used to absurdity especially after De Cirque?”
There was a pause as Valeriana debated whether or not to tell him.
“I’m looking for Aether.”
Raegan’s brows shot up to his hairline. “Well, that might be a problem.”
He bounced right back from incredulity. “But not impossible. However, if you wish to start finding him, you must know about his previous appearances and the appearance of the other gods. Why not accompany me to the House of Spirit? We have records you might want to see,” he offered, a hand jutted out.
“If you can guarantee I won’t be abducted.”
“You’ll just have to trust me.”