CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 35 ♦ It Starts
Valeriana slipped into the outfit with frazzled nerves, her hands shaking as she needled them through the spaghetti sleeves of her satin dress. Arisce insisted on ‘a little skin’ since long sleeves and long skirts apparently made her look a little long-winded and ‘irrelevant.’ One of the more elusive members of De Cirque and a star performer, Cat, helped get her makeup done to help her not look too whitewashed onstage like she did on her debut performance. Her co-member lined her eyes thick with kohl and gave it a smoky finish which gave her azure blues a vivid pop. After that, her lips were given a rich shade of red while her cheeks were fanned with a delicate shade of pink.
She hadn’t been very fond of thick makeup. The drastic change to her face scared and awed her at the same time. It felt foreign. Though vestiges of her spirit remained, her reflection looked like another person. A better, more beautiful, more confident person. If she was going to look like this in front of many people, maybe it wouldn’t be as bad.
“Beautiful,” said Cat as she down the brushes and patted her shoulder. Valeriana wanted to echo her words. The golden glow casted by the lamps gave her an almost ethereal radiance.
“You made her look like a show stealer,” Aoute commented, stepping forward with a mischievous grin. “You sure the lineup is correct? By the looks of it, she must be the finale.”
“Seriously,” Valeriana muttered as she glared at Aoute.
“What? I’m not kidding!” Knife boy laughed.
Valeriana’s nerves were still frazzled at the thought of performing in front of many people. The adrenalin was making her jittery—especially after Arisce warned her the people of Prevnia were a tough crowd compared to people from Avenida—less enthusiastic and more unimpressed. They were much like the Fire Faction audience, only worse.
She’d departed earlier that day from Lavanya, the town under the Arcana and Raegan, back to De Cirque. Tiger was not by her side as she sent him on a small mission. The cat was lithe and furtive. He might be grumpy and unwilling as well, but he was smart enough. He would be safe, Valeriana assured herself that.
“They will love you,” Cat whispered into her ear. “You have the power to make people pause at the sound of your voice.”
“Probably from shock?” she joked with a joshing smile.
“Probably when you sing,” the woman responded with a slight shrug. “But you have power in your voice. Just continue talking. Speak from your heart like you did. You’ll do beautifully.”
“I’m not sure.” Her mouth curled with uncertainty. “Why are stories such a big thing for you people? To dedicate a segment like this is a bit much, don’t you think?” she asked, as her mind replayed the conversation she had with Raegan.
Before Cat could open her mouth, a louder voice reverberated. “If I tell you a man called Hopper died, would you care?” Sloan, or better known as Arisce, stepped in, smoking her pipe.
“Arisce . . .” Valeriana trailed off, looking into the icy blue eyes through the mirror.
“Would you?” she repeated.
She turned on her seat to face the woman. “I would probably say I’m sorry,” she replied, her tone ending with a question mark. If she would be honest, it would probably not remain with her for long before she forgot. Nevertheless, she didn’t want to say ‘no’ as that would be insensitive and cruel.
“But you wouldn’t care as much unless I tell you a man called Hopper woke up this morning to go to work for a starving family of four who relies on him and only him to make ends meet. He was just finishing up a day’s work and held himself back from eating all day to scrape together enough money to buy a cake for a daughter who was turning six. And on his way home, he was assaulted by a gang of robbers who took what he had. They beat him for what he had, but the man was so poor he had only but the cake and a few pennies. He was lying on the cold, hard ground, bearing the pain as he kept on whispering ‘not the cake’ the entire time—a chant, a mantra he would not stop speaking until he breathed his last breath. The next morning, he was found lying in an abandoned alley with a crushed box on his side. He never got home for his daughter’s birthday.”
“Oh.” Valeriana’s heart wrenched. This time, it was real. “That . . . I’m sorry . . .”
“There is a difference in connecting, Banshee,” Arisce told her, making her wince at the name. “Stories connect people. It just doesn’t present facts.”
There was a long pause. The three of them—Aoute, Cat, and Valeriana—were all speechless.
“You’re up, Valeriana. Speak from the heart. Be the bridge,” Arisce said. “Just do what you always do.”
Valeriana sweated as she stood from her seat and paused by the curtains that led into the ring. By the sound of it, the current segment was wrapping up and the audience were on their feet. Aliyah had the talent to rouse the audience no matter what—tough crowd or not. It made Valeriana jealous somehow.
Her fingers were furiously knotting as was her stomach. Any second now, she would have to walk out. A soft purr bid her to look up from watching her fingers tangle. Tyson, her very own twin-tailed lion beast partner stood right across her. His green eyes were bright and carried in them the much-needed confidence she lacked.
He stalked towards her as graceful as he always was, the pale, earthy fur glowing under the dim lamps.
“We can do this, Tyson,” she told him, reaching out to pet him with her gloved hands. Despite the thin barrier, she could feel the velvety softness as her digits glided across his head. Her words were more directed to herself than to him, even so.
She felt the torture of slow death as the time ate away. They were opting for a very grand entrance with even more fire and explosions compared to before.
“Banshee! Don’t forget these.” Runner jogged up to her and handed her a lace choker of a crystal, red as rubies. “People won’t hear you speak if you don’t wear your resonance stones.”
“Thanks,” she told the boy. “Wish me luck.”
She stopped speaking as she put on the choker, making sure the stone was put nicely on her throat. Roaring applause echoed in her ears. Valeriana swallowed heavily as she took a deep breath, trying to erase any trace of fear and uncertainty in her face.
“And now!” Aliyah’s voice reverberated.
She steeled her spine as she was called out into the ring, a wide smile blooming on her lips. Smoke thickened in the center and fogged the audience’s view. As she was prompted, she ran into the center with Tyson on her tail and waited. Meanwhile, her beast partner got to work. Fires lit up around them—all of different colors.
Fire—hot and blue—appeared behind them as well. This would cast a mysterious silhouette in the fog belonging to both her and Tyson. The smoke curled eerily and she opened her mouth to speak, closing her eyes.
“Would you believe me if I tell you that the stars you see are worlds of their own?” she asked, her voice reverberating. The room was filled with sparks from all the colors of the universe and floated down magically upon the audience. “Some have life, some don’t. Some are rich, some are . . . barren. Dangerous, beautiful, distant and large.”
The smoke started to fade.
“You probably won’t believe me. But you don’t have to,” she said with a smile. The glow of the fire flared behind her lids. She opened them and gazed upon the people.
Her heart jumped. There were countless eyes. Watching her every move.
She kept her fear below her throat and calmly petted Tyson behind the ear, lowering her head, letting her heart speak instead.
“For now, set aside your skepticism. Tonight, everything is real.”
There was silence. Hanging silence.
“I’ve actually decided what to tell you tonight, but I change my mind,” she said in a soft voice. “Leave it to the stars. I’ll let one of you choose a topic you feel most interested in and I will tell you what I know.”
Whispers rose in the Big Top. Valeriana gazed at Tyson to offer a small apology as well as to ask a favor. She wasn’t going with how they practiced it. There was just a feeling that if she went with it the usual way, the performance would be average. Beside, having this show in her hands, she could do what she wanted. Whether she was making the right decision or not would matter afterwards.
“Where your light falls, the lucky person gets to choose,” she told the lion.
Tyson’s mouth parted to release a butterfly. Valeriana followed it with her eyes, feeling intoxicated by the onslaught of memories that came with it. It fluttered across the room before landing on the nose of a child with doe-like eyes and twin braids.
“Do I get to choose?” the child asked, raising her voice so that it would reach Valeriana.
“Yes, of course, honey,” Valeriana answered.
The child jumped. “Can you tell us about the sea people? The people who lives in the sea? They have tails and can breathe under water!”
And in that moment, she knew which story to tell. “The undines,” Valeriana replied. “I think I might have something you’ll like.” She chuckled.
Tyson’s fire simultaneously showed the depths of the water wherein the tailed guardians that reigned over Larkovia swam.
“Maybe I should tell you about Diana,” she began. “She had green eyes—like emerald waters would under a bright, sunny day. Her hair was like the waves, curled by the salt in the sea. All I could remember was thinking it somehow looked like the sand in the beach—pale yet golden. She had a long, bright tail. Her scales inched off the skin around her waist and a few more would dot her cheeks and arms. Her ears were sharp. She was one of the most beautiful things I encountered in my life. Including Clyte and Elvira—two little girls just your age . . . with tails. Then there’s Calder. Handsome, funny, with a tail too.”
Tyson showed images of the upper body and would only reveal the tail afterwards with a pop. The audience were amused and Valeriana felt the relief with how Tyson was so in tune. The silhouettes of fire was just what she needed.
She proceeded to tell the crowd of the encounter with the Undine’s Sea, where she recalled the events that occurred with how they were forcibly turned. The highlight of it all was Diana’s sacrifice and her sudden inauguration as the matriarch of the Larkovian guardians. Noteworthy mentions included the arrival of the sea serpents and the efforts of the Marine Battalion to keep the oil spill which carried the damnable taint in place. There involved a lot of fire and explosion in those parts, primarily due to the efforts of the hands that assisted in making everything jive with the pace of her storytelling. Tyson kept up surprisingly well and visualized each scene with the grace of his fire.
Like heartbeat, there was a sudden rise in action and suspense. The height of it all was reached as Tyson’s fire resembled the parted sea. Sparks fell down from the sky and bloomed into flowers.
At the end of it all, there was a round of applause.
“It might seem finished,” she said. “But it’s not. The rest, however, is for another time.”
With that, Valeriana and Tyson’s segment ended. They retreated into the backstage, an explosion of applause in their wake. Valeriana was met with smiles from her co-members. She gave them her thanks and caught Maridie and Lundie gazing at her with a swirl of emotions in their eyes. It was then that she realized her story must’ve somehow struck a cord.
Whoever these two were, they definitely had a connection with the undines.
“You made me sweat,” said one of their working hands. “And nervous a second there.”
“I’m sorry. It was probably hard on you performing impromptu but I just felt . . .”
“It’s alright,” Aliyah said. “If you pushed through with the previous plan, it wouldn’t be as real and raw as it was.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Go with whatever you feel,” said Aoute. “We’ll be right here behind you.”
Valeriana thanked them once again for their earnest support. Since leaving Valemnia, she felt lost. Now, at least, she had people who had her back.
The night faded and time eventually came to close the stage. Goodbyes were sent, the vicinity was secured, and John once again began to leave with the circus on his back. After tucking in the beasts, Valeriana retreated to her room, wiped off her makeup, and threw herself to bed. The exhaustion wore on her so bad, she immediately fell asleep.
But her troubles were not done. Like the night before, she suffered from nightmares she could not recall. Once or twice, she woke up, startled and scared to go back to sleep. She knew, however, that rest was a luxury. A nightmare or two should not be a hindrance to take it. She debated grabbing the jade sphere but felt too lazy to move out of bed. Sighing, she drifted back to her fitful sleep.
The third time she was pulled from her hell of dreams, it was due to the poke on her nose.
Her eyes cracked open to find blue eyes staring at her, white tail brushing her upper lip.
“Tiger?” she grumbled. “What the hell you little—oh . . .” She sat up and brushed the crust from her eyes. She realized that he’d come back from his little mission. “Come here.” She pulled him to her lap and pulled on the knot she had tied around his neck.
After blinking several times, she read the reply and smiled.
“You deserve your reward,” Valeriana told him as she pulled out the catnip and let her little guardian writhe and mewl on the floor sniffing out its leaves.