CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 38 ♦ Waiting Game
The ride through the woods was quiet, save for the whispers of birds and insects. Deli did not seem welcoming of any conversation despite Valeriana wanting to open topic after topic. Perhaps it was just her uncertainty and lack of confidence. It was clear that if the girl wanted her much needed answers, she would have to thicken her face.
She cleared her throat. “I need my . . . things,” Valeriana began. “You told me the next time we see each other, you will return them.”
“You can start taking them back now,” Deli told her, fishing out the familiar chain. She let it dangle from her fingers mockingly, clinks resonating as the jewels and polished band glinted under the sunlight streaming through the canopy. “If you can, that is.”
Valeriana’s breath quickened and she stomped down on the urge to leap for the chain. She could not be reckless. The Lady Commander was . . . powerful, to say the least. She wouldn’t throw it out in the open like bait if she couldn’t pull the lines.
“You gotta be kidding,” Valeriana muttered exasperatedly. She eyed the Wylden Cosmos with frustration. One way or another, she had to take that back. After all, she still needed to return it . . . really.
Her mind whirred to think of ways to reclaim it. She eyed the necklace intently as Deli shoved it deep in her inner pocket, under her thick coat and cloak. A thousand scenarios flashed through her mind. She imagined how it would turn out if she jumped right now and strangled the Lady Commander.
It wouldn’t work, would it?
“Are you really going to play this game?” Valeriana asked, frustrated. “Don’t tell me the revenge you were talking about when you took that from me is actually for me. Dude, what did I do to you?”
“I have my motives. If I were to tell you now, I might jinx it.”
“So it’s on me?”
“No,” Deli replied and calmly turned her head so that her chin was above her shoulder and her eyes were on Valeriana. “What exactly have you done to make me think I would want to take my revenge on you?”
She shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?”
“Things are very complicated, but you will know in due time,” she said.
“This has something to do with Aleser,” Valeriana guessed. “Does it? What exactly did he do to you for you to hate him so much?”
“That is my business.”
“It must be big,” she said. Valeriana looked forward and tightened her grip around the reins. “I’m going to find out even if you don’t tell me.”
“You can try.”
“You sound as if you don’t believe.”
“I have my doubts,” Deli told her. “You’re naïve, too trusting, you’re weak, and you didn’t even properly protect the things you should be protecting with your life. It’s your fault. You wouldn’t be trying to take it back from me if you had done your best not to let it get into my hands.”
Valeriana didn’t try to argue. It was true. And it stung. She wasn’t really doing her job properly. “But I will take it back. Or die trying.”
Everything fell quiet. The honey-golden blonde shot glances at the Deli and found the commander’s lips opening with a slight incline of her head—as though tempted to say something—only for her jaws to clench tight the next second. She reckoned Deli had some questions to ask but didn’t know how exactly to ask them. The woman’s aura flared restlessly, giving Valeriana hints of her thoughts. Whatever the commander really felt, on the other hand, was beyond her.
Valeriana kept her silence the rest of the way. She truly did not know what to say. Not to mention she was busy thinking of ways to take back the ring and the key.
Whatever they wanted to say fell away with the tranquility of the forest.
The trip was smooth and, very soon, the ravines were on sight. The thick woods never thinned and continued dotting the lands until the very edge. The steep cliff was framed by a thriving flora. A leaning tree curved dangerously on the edge, its roots jutting out. It was a harsh but beautiful meeting of land and water. The ravine was cracked above the sea, framing a stream at the bottom. How deep it actually went was left to the imagination.
“You’re lucky people don’t frequent the ravine so much,” Deli said. “There are many beliefs of . . . abnormalities about this place.”
The sound of the sea was calming and the immediate vicinity had nothing peculiar—which made it very unnerving, especially after what Deli just said. But rumors and superstitions would not deter Valeriana. She quickly disembarked the back of her horse and looked around. Tiger was quick on her tail.
“I will leave you. Whatever you seek to do here, I will come back for you in two days’ time like we agreed,” said Deli. One after another, she started ratting out instructions like there was no tomorrow. “If not me, I’ll send someone I trust. I have no time to linger. I’m a busy woman after all. Make sure to hide from plain sight. Should anyone come here, avoid them as much as you can. But I’m sure that’s not likely.”
“Take the horse with you,” Valeriana told her. “Unless it will give you away and make Aleser think you’re with someone.”
“No. I have my ways for that. But are you sure? The reason I took him with me is so that you have someone to take you away should anything happen. Hopefully nothing.”
“I can’t hide someone as big as he is,” she replied. “And I don’t think I’ll need running. I might spend most of my time hanging in that tree if I’m not successful.” She pointed at the leaning tree at the edge of the cliff. “I might go bungee jumping when I get bored and do pull ups at the branch. Just the thought of it gives me the scare.”
“I didn’t take you for that sort of person.” Deli frowned.
Valeriana laughed. “It might give me something to busy myself with. Thanks so much.” She reached up to her with an expecting hand while holding the wine bottle close to her chest with the other.
“What is this?”
“A handshake,” she replied. “We do it back home to express our thanks.”
“Maybe another time.” She eyed it suspiciously, pulling on the reigns and turning to leave. She blew a sharp whistle at the horse Valeriana rode and it followed after her without another thought.
The lady knight rode away and Valeriana was left to her own devices.
“She didn’t fall for it. I wanted to pull her down from her horse and somehow take back the necklace. Whatever. It was worth a try.” She sighed. “So? What now?” She opened her arms like an eagle and shot a glance at her animal companion. “What now, Tiger? Should I go HEY I HAVE A WINE FOR YOU, AETHER!” she exclaimed. Echoes answered her calls. “I JUST NEED A TALK IF YOU WOULD COME OUT. WE CAN DO A TRADE! YEAH RIGHT. I NEED YOUR BLESSING, ACTUALLY.”
Tiger lowered his head with a shake, as though embarrassed beyond belief. Unable to bear being with the girl, he made his way to the leaning tree on the edge of the cliff and scaled the bark with his claws. He shot a glance at Valeriana before settling on the highest branch and looking out to the sea.
Valeriana was a little clueless how she would climb and climb down later but she decided to mind what was to come when it came. She pulled herself onto the thickest branch and, with heart thudding, looked down at the plunge she would take if ever. With the Karva close to her chest and her backpack firm around her shoulders, she leaned back and took in the splendor before her.
“I wonder why this world has no demons,” she muttered. “What is so special in this city that it’s not accessible to the corruption in Valemnia? And why aren’t the people here contented with the peacefulness and sanctuary it offers?”
Tiger climbed down from the top branch and leapt on her lap. She caressed him behind the ears. “I’m pretty sure there are many people in Valemnia who would kill to stop being pestered by demons. Yet there are also people here who would kill to leave the safety of its walls. They’re never contented, are they?”
Her cat gazed at her intently with his blue eyes. They seemed to bore straight into her soul.
“I’m going to wait,” she told him. “I’m going to wait as long as I need to. As long as I can. I just hope . . . I just hope Aether doesn’t take his sweet time. I don’t think I have much of it left.”
Tiger gazed at her.
“Not to sound like I’m dying. Seriously.”
Valeriana had packed things she thought she needed. She expected she would be camping out but she didn’t pack so much she would have trouble trying to hide herself. She brought along everything she thought she would need, not more, just the barest necessities.
“I brought some snacks but I don’t think this’ll be enough for us for the next two days. We’ll need to go hunting. I hope you can help me with the foraging, just like what we did back then with Keelan and Eres.” She tapped on the cat’s nose playfully. “Plus, I won’t be so bored while I wait for Aether. I’m going to plan an ambush.”
Tiger gazed questioningly at Valeriana.
“What ambush, you say?” she asked. “Ambushing Deli, of course. I still need to get those back, if you know what I mean. But I’m clueless.”
He rolled his eyes as he curled up on her lap.
“You know, the nonverbal insults you’re giving me are worse than the verbal ones I get from people all the time,” she told him with a frown. “I’d totally feel better if you talk to me, because I totally know you can. Or rather, I just can hear animals in general. That doesn’t make them automatically like me, though.”
“Whatever, Tiger. WHAT. EVER.” She nearly threw him down the ravine from frustration but she didn’t want to lose her only companion.
Instead, she vented her anger on ‘the plan.’ Valeriana drew out her crudest ideas with some blank papers and her favored pen. She wasn’t the best when it came to thinking up of good plans. Charles was the one who did most of it.
What she would give to have the Twelve with her right now.
“I can’t believe I’m missing those guys. I wanna see them.”
“Oh god,” she muttered, bringing up her hands to her face. “I don’t want to think about it.”
Not thinking was wishful thinking. Whatever she didn’t want to think the most about stubbornly burst through the forefront of her attention all the more. Frustrated by the memories, she smothered herself with distracting thoughts. Past was past. She needed to take back the necklace and find Aether. That was the present.
The sun eventually sank and the moon drifted in its place. The forest turned dark with nothing but the stars in the sky to light it up. Valeriana felt at peace, sitting on her tree with no other disturbance other than the calm waves. She curled up in a blanket and tied herself to the tree with a rope. She didn’t want to drop to her death below, after all.
“What was that song?” she asked, dazed with the touch of sleep. “I only heard it once but . . . it went something like a setting sun and an ascending moon.”
The sun has set.
“Right.” She yawned. “The sun has set. What came next?”
A dark night.
“Yet, there is no need for a dark night. For there hangs . . . starlight, and the moon ascents. How does the rest of it go? Mountains may crumble . . .”
Eventually, against all odds, she drifted to sleep. The hymn played in the back of her mind like a lullaby.