CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 40 ♦ Attempts
Valeriana heatedly scoffed at her cat who casually sat on top of the net, tail springing at the line that hoisted the trapped victim to a tree—her. After stealing a trap set in the outskirts of the forest in their hunt for food, the honey-golden blonde attempted on setting it up herself. However, in an ironic and humiliating turn of events, she caught herself in the very same trap she was trying to make. Tiger refused to help and instead watched over her with a ridiculing gaze, licking his paws and curling his tail.
“You little—you goddamned cat!” She nearly sobbed in frustration. She knew she had a knife tucked into her leg but she realized she was using it to peel the skin off an apple she left in the sack. The most frustrating thing was that her sword was just at arm’s reach, leaning against the base of the tree she was currently hanging from. She was up too high, however. Not even both legs could reach it.
So it wouldn’t be an arm’s reach if her legs couldn’t reach it. Or were her legs shorter than her arms?
She sighed. “What would Arisce tell me if she found me like this? Oh god.” Valeriana rolled her eyes.
“Dost thou need my help, lheuim ansur?” Cifaro’s voice echoed.
“Cif—no.” She stopped short. “I was going to say yes, but I changed my mind. I have a new idea and I can’t use you for it. You’re my trump card, after all. So, Tiger, if you would just help me, please. I have some catnip for you back in the circus.”
Finally, Tiger was eager.
While she was busy putting her idea to plan, Deli rode up to the ravine. Just in time. The sun was at its highest and tyrannical in its might. Thankfully, the trees casted a cool shade over Valeriana and the breeze blew in once in a while. As usual, the Lady Commander bore her mask, showing only her cold eyes. Cold eyes and yet smoldering with fire. An ironic combo. They reminded her of someone—but so did everything green. How could she forget it when she had gazed at them for those minutes?
Valeriana wondered sort of events would take course upon her return. The scenarios flashed rather quickly through her mind, causing a churn in her stomach. It made her want and not want to return.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked.
“Ah, nothing.” Valeriana shrugged, knees on her chest.
The Lady Commander halted before the trapped girl and easily glided down the back of her horse. This time, she didn’t bring with her another horse. Perhaps she’d taken Valeriana’s word of advice and deemed it unwise should Aleser check on her whereabouts.
“That’s hardly nothing.”
“I was trying to set a trap for you so I can get a shot at taking back the necklace,” Valeriana confessed. “What I was trying to do didn’t happen so I decided to do something else worthwhile.”
“Biting your own trap.” Deli huffed, her eyes glinting with laughter. For sure, she was hiding a smile under her mask. “What an utter disaster you are, Valeriana.”
“I should get angry at you for laughing, but I won’t blame you,” she said, cracking a displeased smile as she forcibly parted the net’s lines for her face. “I brought this on to myself. Now, I really will appreciate it if you . . . cut me down?”
“Why didn’t you?” Deli inquired, pulling out a dagger strapped around her leg.
“Isn’t it obvious?” She rolled her eyes. “I left everything in my bag and that goddamned sword is right there,” she pointed to her weapon at the base of the tree. “You can check it if you want. And this stupid cat doesn’t want to help me at all.” She glared at Tiger who was leisurely resting on the branch of the tree were she hang.
“I do not believe you don’t have anything with you.”
“Oh yeah. If I had anything with me, I wouldn’t have stayed here since morning. So how do I prove it? Search me then!” Valeriana nearly flung her arms in frustration. Only the lack of space in the net was stopping her. “But then you can only do that after you bring me down.”
“That is because only stupidity will get herself trapped in her own trap.” Deli came forward and reached up to slice the net.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. This wasn’t mine anyway, I just borrowed it.” She grunted. “I don’t have enough space for a trap this big.”
The blade slashed the lines and Valeriana landed on her stomach, face first, on dirt. Wheezing, she brushed off the grains that stuck on her face.
She didn’t get up right away as Deli, in confusion asked, “Borrowed it?”
“Yup. And I intend on returning it.” She sat up. “Unlike you.”
Valeriana leapt for her sheathed blade by the tree. Deli, too, was fast. The woman swept it off with a nimble kick before the girl’s hands could even inch close. The sword skidded under the bushes three, long strides away.
The honey-golden blonde took advantage of the split second the woman’s attention was drawn away and speedily drew the dagger she hid under her shirt. She held it with her thumb at the pommel and her pinky against the guard, jumping at Deli and swinging with vivacity.
Deli casually evaded her attack before jabbing a fist at her face. Valeriana was unable to avoid. She saw only a shadow before a startling pain burst on her face. The force sent her hurtling back with a busted lip. That flew quicker than she could react and see, a literal ‘didn’t see it coming’ moment.
Valeriana landed on her ass, a trail of blood dribbling down her chin and coating her teeth. She swallowed and grimaced at the coppery tang that drifted to the back of her mouth.
“Urgh.” The sting traveled to her eyes, making them water. “I didn’t even last a second.”
“Good try.” A hint of smile pulled on the corners of Deli’s eyes but Valeriana was unable to confirm it because of her mask.
There was leftover dizziness that spun in her head before she was offered a hand to stand.
“Hurry, I’m pushing my limits by leaving the House,” Deli said, effortlessly pulling her up. “I can’t accompany you next time, so make sure you know the way.”
“You’re not coming next time?” Valeriana staggered to her feet and reached for her backpack cradled by a toddler-sized boulder by the cliff tree. She had to remind herself to be more careful of the Lady Commander’s punches. They hurt like hell.
“What do you think of me? Your chaperone? I can’t,” the woman said. “Because preparations are in order.”
“For what?” Tiger climbed her back and settled, like usual, around her neck.
“You’ll know when you get back. I’m sure Arisce will tell you—if you don’t meet with those Spirit folks first. But I must know why there are traps set in the outskirt of this forest.” The woman pulled herself to her horse’s back and waited for Valeriana to do the same.
“Why is that so strange? Wouldn’t some people go in here from time to time to hunt?” Valeriana positioned herself behind Deli, grasping the horn of the saddle behind her for balance. She wasn’t in good terms with Deli to invade space so casually.
“These are not hunting grounds, Valeriana,” Deli told her as she patted her horse and urged her to run. They started slow and went full speed in seconds.
“Why?” she asked.
“You ask too many questions. Just let me be rid of you so I can return. At least I have a reason to tell Aleser for being absent,” she muttered.
“You’re still sticking with him?” Valeriana fought to keep her balance but eventually gave up and clumsily grasped Deli’s waist.
Perhaps she could see if the necklace was under her jacket?
“Don’t even think about it. I’ll throw you off this horse,” the commander threatened.
Valeriana sighed. “Well, I did think about it. How far will you send me flying?”
“Your sarcasm is extremely outstanding.”
“You got that right.” She paused. “Weren’t you going to take revenge? Considering the fact that you’re stabbing him in the back, I’m sure he’s the one you’re waiting to . . . take out.”
“This isn’t the time.”
No rebukes. Valeriana got the right person.
“How do I know this isn’t a big fad?” she inquired dubiously. “What if you’re doing this to bait me? How do I know that you aren’t using the necklace for Aleser’s sick methods? I mean, that gives you the motive since you do want to return, right?”
“With how you talk, someone must’ve betrayed you. At the same time, you seem to have a bad habit of forgiving and forgetting.”
A touch of memory hooded Valeriana’s eyes. “Why did this become about me?”
“I’m just stating my impressions of you like how you throw your ridiculous assumptions all over the place. I do not stand by his method. It’s just that, sometimes, to take out an enemy, you cannot wield the knife in his face. It must be somewhere he doesn’t see coming,” the woman explained.
“I see. Are you sure it’s a right choice to tell me all this?”
“Like how it’s a right choice to trust me with your little excursions? I know you’ll be coming back, Valeriana. I can easily set a trap for you. Knowing how naïve you are, you’ll never suspect.”
“Now that you did, I will,” she said and bit her lip. “Although I guess you’re sort of right. About the . . . stupid part.”
“I never said you were stupid.”
“You were implying it! Since when hasn’t anyone ever?” she trailed off. “Honestly though, it’s just not a matter of outcomes for me—betrayed or not—but the truths that led to it. Every ending has a story. Judging the quality of an entire book for a botched finale will make you no better. I just . . . want to understand.”
Silence erected between them for a few moments.
“Sometimes, you and Aleser have similarities. But those similarities also make you so different.” Deli sounded somewhat troubled. “You trust me enough to put your safety in my hands but not enough for you trust me with the necklace. Although it is understandable.” There was a hanging ‘but’ in that sentence. Whatever it was, Deli did not dare continue.
“I just don’t see why you need the Wylden Cosmos and the key,” Valeriana said. “Those two things are very important to me. If I lose them, I’ll fail everything I’m working for—the reason why I’m here.”
“What’s so important about a fake?” Deli huffed.
Valeriana’s gaze snapped to the woman’s neck. The Lady Commander shot a small glance over her shoulder.
“How did you—” Words died in her throat.
The path before them opened to the barrier trees. After the horse slowed to a halt with a neigh, the honey-golden blonde disembarked while Deli remained. With her foot finally on solid ground, Valeriana fixed her backpack and took Tiger into her arms. She tipped back her head and gazed into the woman’s eyes.
Deli was an enigma.
“I’ll tell you something since you care so much for the necklace,” she said. “I took it from you because I don’t trust you.”
Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
“I’ll be going this way. The opening is right there.” The woman pointed to a small gap between the trees. Unlike others, it was slightly bigger but obfuscated by trailing vines and bushes. “I’ll see you soon.”
With that, she rode away, leaving a cloud of dust and a confused as hell Valeriana in her wake.
She had to stop for a few seconds to try and process what the woman just said. Her face wrinkled with a deep frown as she made her way to the gap and squeezed through. She was unable to fit the first time she tried. Well, actually, she did but her backpack didn’t.
The Karva wine took a bunch of space and inflated it. Valeriana had to remove the bottle and hold it while she went about her second attempt. Successful, she passed through the small chamber inside, stopping short to look around for a few moments. For an introvert, this place was heaven. But claustrophobics would probably treat this place as hell.
She broke through the other side to see Raegan waiting for her.
Finally, a face she was happy to see.
Valeriana smiled. “Hey. I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Someone had to bring you Blackie. Any luck?” the Lord Commander asked, her beloved horse’s reigns in hand.
“No,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to give the Karva back for a while.” Valeriana handed over the emerald bottle to Raegan.
“I see. I apologize.”
“No need. I was expecting it anyway. I didn’t think it would be easy.” She pocketed her hands and sighed. “A . . . friend said that to actually get the attention of the gods and call them out is to stir groundbreaking trouble. Maybe that and the wine will somehow encourage Aether to meet me.”
He gazed at her face quizzically. “What happened to you?”
“This?” She lightly tapped on her lip and shook her head. “This is nothing. I was hanging by a tree and accidentally fell,” she lied.
“You have to be more careful next time,” Raegan told her. “Milady will be very worried for you.”
“She should also know I’m very clumsy. Bruises magically appear on my body.”
“Still . . . you will be performing. An artist’s face must be well-taken care of.”
“Say that to—” she hesitated. “The ground I landed on.”
Raegan raised a brow. “Speaking of performances, we’ll be coming to the show tonight. Would you like us to go together?”
“Why—oh, right. De Cirque will be performing here. But I have to come extra early for the set up.”
“It’s alright. We need to talk with Lady Arisce anyhow. It’s for the upcoming city-wide event.”
“Yes. You’ve never heard of the annual Sovereign’s Tournament?”
Valeriana had to shake her head. “What is it?”
Raegan smiled. “We’ll explain later. Come on. Milady is waiting. We’ll get you healed up there before we head off to De Cirque as well. Lady Arisce won’t let you perform with such a blatant injury.”
“Injury? It’s not like I was decapitated . . .”
“You know how strict she is.”
They mounted their horses and rode to the direction of the House of Spirit.