CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 37 ♦ Back Into the Fire
After nearly straining her back trying to do handsprings, the day whipped past harder than a bullet train. Before Valeriana knew it, it was time to set out to do her ‘arrangement.’ She rose early from the excitement and prepared to set out to Lavanya, where both Raegan and Arcana would be waiting.
Lavanya and Liberia, which belonged to the Spirit and Fire Faction respectively, were neighboring towns. Valeriana decided it would be a good idea if she went to Lavanya first. She needed Raegan and Arcana’s assistance, not to mention she needed to pick up the bottles of Karva—their finest wine—to tempt Aether into coming out.
She still didn’t know if it would work but it was worth a try. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be spotted by the Fire Faction during her little excursion. Extra carefulness was in order—especially since she wasn’t expecting to be successful the first time around.
Luckily for her, she had a connection within the Fire Faction—her only connection, really. A connection she was tugging to see if it was legit. If it wasn’t, she’d be falling from a cliff. She might land on jagged rocks or water. Either way, it was dangerous, but risks have to be taken.
“You’re here!” Arcana jumped, her lavender eyes lighting up with glee. Raegan had a hand on her shoulder as though to keep her from running off. “I’ve—we’ve—been waiting for you.”
Valeriana jumped down from Blackie, her horse, and approached the gates of the House of Spirit, the Spirit Faction headquarters. The sun had barely risen and the sky was a mess of blue and red.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Not that that’s strange.”
“Do you have Toodle—Tiger—with you?” Arcana inquired.
Valeriana nodded down to the cat she pocketed inside her jacket. Tiger was curled comfortably by her stomach. He was quite heavy but not so large he would fall.
“I want to say hello, but he probably would not want me near him. Have you had breakfast yet?” the faction lady inquired with an enthusiastic smile. “I watched the show in Prevnia, you people were brilliant! I’ve always wanted to perform with De Cirque but the training you guys go through must be intense.”
“I think you’ll make a good addition,” Valeriana told her with a smile. “You exhibit very . . . intense things yourself. Anyhow, I’m supposed to meet with my, um, accomplice at your borders by sunrise. As you can see, I’m quite late. I’m sorry for being like this but I’m pressed for time.”
Arcana’s lip trembled and her brows met. Her eyes popped with sadness but she tried to remain neutral by nodding and forcing a smile. Valeriana felt her guilt rise. She tried to make amends, tugging on Blackie to keep him still.
“I’ll come early next time for breakfast,” she told her. “I’m guessing this won’t be the first and last time I’ll be doing this. I don’t expect baiting a god would be easy. I’m expecting disappointment, but still hoping for the best.”
“Who’s this accomplice of yours?” Raegan asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to out her—uh . . .” She slipped.
“A lady, then.” Raegan nodded and lowered his voice. “If she’s an accomplice, I wouldn’t want her compromised. Whoever she is. Will I be surprised if I know?”
Valeriana shrugged. “That depends.”
“Oh yes.” Arcana jumped. “We won’t keep you any longer. Raegan, quickly. We cannot stall her.”
Raegan picked up a wooden box with a bright, yellow ribbon by his foot. Valeriana guessed it was the Karva wine, packaged for extra caution, so she held out a hand expectantly to receive it. What she didn’t expect was Raegan whistling sharply and keeping the Karva close to his chest, leaving her embarrassed. Flustered, she pulled back her arms as a beautiful, white mare trotted up to him from behind. The Lord Commander quickly mounted, depositing the wooden box into the satchel tied by the saddle with a sly grin.
“What—” Valeriana glanced between the two in confusion.
“We told you we’ll help you,” Raegan said, reaching out to pet the mare as it restlessly tottered. “Come on, I thought you were late?”
“I didn’t tell my companion I was bringing someone.”
“She’d be tactful enough to wear something that’ll hide her face. If not, send someone in her stead. You should’ve expected it, anyhow.”
“I thought the wines were enough of help.” Valeriana scratched her head as she hooked a foot on the stirrup and threw the other leg over Blackie. She shifted on the saddle, pulled on the reigns, and readied for the ride ahead. “You cannot be serious. I can’t continue to bother you like this.”
“Do we look like we’re kidding then?” Arcana joked. “Off you two go, then. I’ll be waiting. Be careful now and come back safe!” She waved enthusiastically. “And please, I would like to have you over again, Valeriana. Things get easily boring around here and I would love a friend to train with.”
“I only get three days off every week,” she said. “But I’ll make sure to hang out with you.”
“That’s a promise!” Arcana replied with childlike passion.
They set off.
Raegan was a quiet man but his curiosity often broke his silence. Valeriana realized he was the type who would continue asking questions to satiate his insatiable inquisitiveness. He often ended up a bit prying and presumptuous but he was often right about the conclusions he openly shared. Valeriana found his insights valuable and, in no time at all, they ended up doing an exchange.
There was not much time to talk, anyhow. What questions the Lord Commander had was left to him to find answers to.
“Are you sure this is where you’re supposed to be heading?” Raegan asked.
“Yes,” Valeriana answered. “Why?”
“Where we’re going is barricaded by barrier trees for hundreds of yards out,” the Lord Commander said. “There is no way to pass through. Are you certain you’re not being deceived?”
If Valeriana was walking, she would have stopped short to think. Their horses, however, continued, albeit a bit slower than before.
“You’ll give it a go, right, Tiger?” she asked her cat. “You met her. What do you think?”
Tige’s head poked out of his hiding place. “Meow.”
“I’ll trust her this time, even if my head is telling me I shouldn’t.”
“If that’s how it is I’ll have your back.” Raegan’s assurance lifted some weight off her shoulders.
“Thanks, I seriously appreciate it.”
Very soon, they were on the borders of Lavanya. Ahead of them was a thick barrier of gnarling trees which had grown so big and thick that even air would be unable to pass through. Thick roots like inching snakes peeked from under the dirt.
“We’re here,” Raegan stated as they pulled to a stop.
Valeriana’s eyes traced the dimples on the barks and the ugly, stoutness of each branch. “Do you see her, Ti?” The cat’s head popped above the crack between her buttoned jacket flaps after a soft pat. Tiger blinked up at Valeriana and curled out of his makeshift cot.
He climbed down Blackie’s back and hopped for a hammock branch at their left. Valeriana followed promptly, dismounting her horse. Raegan came down as well, following closely. They took a couple of steps towards the direction her cat went to and caught Tiger brush against a figure whose head was tilted back against a forking trunk. It was Valeriana’s accomplice, lounging on the branches like they were hammocks. A black mask sat around the person’s lower face, green eyes darting down to meet theirs. It didn’t hide her identity very well, even so. After all, she was notorious with wearing masks outside the House of Fire.
Raegan drew his blade. “We’ve been—”
“Put your sword down, Lord Commander.” Deli took Tiger in her arms and jumped. Her boots crushed the fresh earth beneath, casting a thin cloud of dust.
“It’s okay, Raegan,” Valeriana said.
The Spirit Faction’s Lord Commander was speechless. “This—you . . . you mean . . .”
Delilah ripped off her mask. “I didn’t expect you to be so intimate with the Spirit Faction so very soon,” she stated. “I’m not surprised.”
“Are you sure she’s the person you’re trusting yourself with, Valeriana?” Raegan inquired, troubled. His hand lingered on the butt of the sword sheathed around his waist as he warily regarded the approaching woman.
“Yes,” Valeriana said. “I trust her.” She met Delilah’s eyes. “More than I probably should.”
“You trust me enough,” Deli said. “And I trust your friend won’t spill the beans now that he knows.”
“This must be a joke,” Raegan stated.
“If it is, it’s on me,” the Lady Commander told them both. “After all, I wasn’t expecting a companion. Perhaps I should’ve, then I would be more prepared.”
“I do not believe that you did not see us coming from afar, especially since you chose this location.” The man hopped down from his horse with a deep frown. “I’ll have you give me your pardon for this choice of yours does not make sense to me . . .”
“In what sense does it not, milord?” Delilah questioned, letting Tiger down.
The cat promptly made his way back to Valeriana and asked to be picked up. “Thank you, buddy,” she told her animal partner.
“Valeriana wanted a way into the Fire territory with easy access to the ravines bordering the Sea of Celine and Liberia. This spot is the rendezvous point of four towns.” Delilah put her weight into one leg and crossed her arms. “Lavanya up ahead, Cavenor on my left, Mardiya on my right, and Liberia behind.”
“That is the spot on the map you told me to come to, and I wasn’t wrong,” Valeriana said. “But what is with this . . .” She pointed to the barrier of trees. “Because before we can pass, I’m pretty sure that place will need some trimming first. Don’t those trees suffocate with just how close they are to each other?”
“This is the only spot where Liberia and Lavanya meets, if that isn’t already obvious. Taking the coasts will not be an option for Aleser has foolishly started building walls on the shores. After what happened with De Cirque’s performance, he has grown annoyingly paranoid over the glaring weakness that he has not expected would be used against him.”
“You talk as if he’s not your lord,” Raegan said, confused.
“He isn’t. He is not my lord.” Deli shot a glance at Valeriana. “I only bow to the king.”
Understanding lit up the Lord Commander’s eyes.
“Now, I do not prefer we linger. This wall of trees may seem like a hindrance, but that is deceitful. If you know how to worm your way between, you’ll find it is actually the most convenient—if not challenging. You are not too fat, so it should not be a problem for you.”
“Not too fat, you say? So I’m kinda fat?” Valeriana shot at her.
Delilah went for the smallest of cracks and pushed at the thick trees that was stuffing it close. Surprisingly, despite the apparent weight and firmness of the trunks, the gap groaned wider. Or maybe that was just because Deli was strong.
“You don’t have a fear for bugs, do you?” Delilah asked.
Valeriana grimaced. “Just extreme dislike. I think I can bear it.”
“You cannot bring your horse with you,” she said. “Have your friend bring him back to the House of Spirit for a while. I have a ride on the other side prepared for us. I’ll explain what we’ll do then.”
“Thank you so much for your help, Raegan.” Valeriana smiled at the man. “I’ll find a way to pay you back, I promise.”
“Opening the gates will be enough for me.” The man nodded with a smile.
“You sound as if you can’t do it yourself,” Valeriana joked. “But I’ll do my best to help. I’ll leave Blackie to you, then. I’ll make sure to come back for him before I go back to De Cirque in two days.”
He reached into the satchel and brought out their precious cargo. “Here,” he said. “Don’t forget this.”
“Oh.” Valeriana took the box of Karva and pulled it close to her chest. “How the hell is this thing going to fit in there?”
“Hurry up, I do not have the time to wait for you,” she heard Deli say, her voice muffled by the wooden barrier.
“Maybe I’ll ditch the box.” She shrugged, pulling on the fancy ribbons and opening the gift. The emerald bottle was nestled in a swathe of silk and cotton. “It was packed so nicely too.” She took the silk and wrapped it around the bottle before she handed the box back to Raegan.
She bid Blackie her goodbyes and took her backpack from his side. After waving to Reagan, she jogged to the spot that Deli squeezed through. Tiger stood by the small gap between the thick trunks, waiting for Valeriana to catch up. The girl stopped short to shoot a look at Raegan to see if he began to leave, only to see that he lingered to see them go. Valeriana gave him a nod of thanks before she pushed at the thick barks with all the force she could muster and crammed through as well.
The wine bottle went first while her backpack crammed in last. She feared she would puncture it somehow but she had no choice. She held both at arm’s length as she inched through the gap with great difficulty. She ended up looking like an eagle-spread human sacrifice but it didn’t matter. It took a bit of effort and some claustrophobic squeezing along the way. Eventually, the gap panned out to a small chamber that could fit five people.
This would be a good place to hide.
Deli stood waiting. “Quickly,” she said, pointing to another gap behind her.
Valeriana followed and sucked in her stomach.
After a couple of tightened breaths, they were finally back to a more open space. Valeriana did not have fear of tight, cramped spaces but that wasn’t exactly comfortable either. While she would not prefer to go through it once more, she could see herself using the path so much her stomach would be permanently curved inwards after she’s done.
“Come along.” Deli guided her to two horses that grazed on the ground under towering trees.
“Why two horses? Couldn’t you just have brought one?”
“I don’t like sharing my space,” the woman replied.
“O . . . kay.”
They were in the thick of the woods, by the looks of it. The ‘pathway’ to the other side was very much covered in a foliage of leaves and bushes, hiding it in plain sight. No one in their right minds would approach the wall of trees unless they knew of its secret.
“This barrier spans to more than a hundred yards. It symbolizes the divide between Lavanya, Cavenor, and Liberia.” The Lady Commander nodded towards the flaring branches and moss-covered barks that intimately stuck close to one another. “This is its thinnest point, partly because it was thinned purposely, with great effort.”
“By who?” Valeriana asked, tip toeing over the many hurdles in her path. When there was no answer, she continued, “I never even knew this was possible. I’ve never seen a thick forest so . . . thick.”
“Those trees are barrier trees,” said Deli.
“Raegan did mention that.”
“They naturally like being close to one another. It’s in their nature.”
“Is this what Aleser’s using to build a wall?”
“Anything with life is unpredictable. He doesn’t like anything unpredictable.”
“I can bet,” Valeriana replied.
They mounted the horses waiting for them and began the ride to the ravines. Valeriana gazed at Deli, who was leading their path, and took a deep breath. She had to open the topic and ask the questions she needed. She might not get another chance, after all.