CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 41 ♦ The Sovereign Tournament
Valeriana was grateful she took the suggestion of Raegan to get patched up before they headed for De Cirque. Arisce’s hawk-like eyes were already scrutinizing her despite being a hill away. The woman gave her semi-healed wounded lip a stare before letting it go and turning to her guests instead. Arisce was never strict with the rest of the body but the face was something she was keen on.
Things were turning into the classic last minute fuss. The Big Top was especially busy since they were securing the decorations and preparing backstage. Valeriana was tempted to jump in right away to help, but she wanted to linger to hear whatever it was they were going to talk about. It didn’t seem much of an issue if she stayed around to listen.
The arrival of Raegan and Arcana did not surprise Arisce. The Spirit Faction’s lady was quite jittery around the troupe leader. While Raegan was calmer, his face was unusually stony.
“I know what you came here for,” said the woman. She shot Valeriana a glance, as if tempted to tell her to go, but she did not say anything.
Both nodded. They stopped before the entrance to the Big Top, on top of the hill.
“If you just waited like I told you.” Arisce’s voice was scolding. “Perhaps I should’ve anticipated it long before.”
Arcana’s shoulders curved in. “We couldn’t help it.”
“I have a basis for my actions,” the troupe leader replied, smoke curling out of her every word. “I am not one to explain myself but you two keep making me think I need to spell it out for you.”
Like scolded children, they hung their heads.
“Aleser keeps getting in the way of things and pushes us around just because he can, just like the other factions. I never take the aggressive response. It may seem unusual to you that I have entered the lion’s den seemingly without a leash.”
“We apologize, Lady Arisce. It was foolish and impulsive,” Raegan said.
She sighed. “I cannot afford to be distracted this year since I have a list of things lined up to be done. If he and those godsforsaken factions keep interfering, then gods know how much trouble that is. I didn’t want you joining since that would greatly undermine the strength of the troupe.” She paused, her cold blue eyes clouded with displeasure. “But what’s done is done. The factions will think I relied on the Spirit to pull a few strings.”
“But you can rely on us,” said Arcana. “We will do our best to expand our power over the other territories in the tournament.”
“No,” Arisce said. “De Cirque will take a step forward. Having you stand up for us will do nothing to prove that.”
A pause hang in the air as both Raegan and Arcana stared at Arisce with wide eyes. Valeriana, too, was open-mouthed at the hints that the troupe leader was dropping.
Arcana stammered, “Are you saying—”
“De Cirque will take part in the coming tournament, yes. Not as a representative of any faction, but as a group of its own.”
Shell-shocked, Raegan and Arcana were dead quiet as they stared at Arisce like a fish out of water. Valeriana could feel the gravity of their conversation. However, given how clueless she was, she was unable to understand its full extent.
“Can anyone tell me what the tournament is and why you guys have your jaws dropping so far?” she inquired.
“The . . . Sovereign Tournament happens every seven years,” Raegan explained. “It’s a judge of power between the factions to break the status quo. Participation is required from all those who currently reign over the towns or else it will be revoked.”
“Break the status quo? Does that mean you fight over the territories in a tournament?” Valeriana asked. Now she knew why they had their jaws dropping.
They nodded. “The most powerful at the moment is Earth, of course. The other factions are, more or less, on the same boat. The one thing we must do in this tournament is to preserve our hold over Lavanya and Alivio so that we can make sure we don’t lose power over our present strongholds.”
“Then how does this whole exchange happen?” Valeriana prodded.
“In the first round, it’s a matter of challenging other competitors and stating the town you want from them,” Raegan told her. “This gives factions the opportunity to increase their influence before the second round.”
“So what happens then?”
“In the second round, a faction must bet one of the towns they’re holding power over and put it in the wheel. This is where everything goes a little . . . wild. It’s an open fight by teams—issuing challenges. If issued a challenge and you were defeated, you can’t challenge them again.”
Arcana continued, “If you don’t have at least one town from the first round, you’re automatically disqualified. If they have just one town, they risk losing that only town so it is imperative there is at least two. There’s a round robin competition that faces each faction against one another at least once. Whoever wins will hoard the most towns.”
“So I’m guessing the Earth Faction won last time?”
“What the hell. This is like the presidential elections, only that you guys gamble your territories as if they’re nothing more than house and lot.” She stopped short and looked at Arisce. “Are you saying you want to take part in the tournament?”
“We, Valeriana, will take part in the tournament.”
“This—how ridiculous is it that a circus will gain power over a town or two or three?!” Valeriana exclaimed, dubious. Just the thought of De Cirque’s craziness reigning over Varialon threatened to pop her nerves.
“In this place, there is no basis of qualification. It’s all a matter of power and capability.”
“But are we capable?”
“You underestimate us, Valeriana. It’s like you doubt what this circus is capable of.”
“Alright, maybe that came out wrong. Just which capability?” she asked.
“I get your point. Unfortunately, all I can tell you is to just wait and see. I’m hoping you know we have many weapons in our arsenal. Besides, the tournament is not in seven months. We have time to prepare for both the tournament and the borders.”
Valeriana stared at Arisce before a thought crossed her mind. “Groundbreaking trouble.”
“That’s right.” Arisce smiled. “Groundbreaking trouble. I’d like to the look on their faces when a nomadic circus grabs their power right in their faces.”
“But will that be allowed?” Valeriana asked.
“With the host being as crazy as you are, I’m sure it will happen,” Arcana whispered, troubled by the entire situation and somewhat disappointed.
“Who’s the host?”
“Do you need to ask?” Arisce shot at her.
“It’s the Fire Faction,” Raegan said.
Valeriana nearly choked on the pooled saliva she swallowed. Her hand slammed on her forehead. “Oh, holy godsdamned shiznits.”
“That’s right.” Arisce smiled. “But before we ask the gods to damn your shiznits, we need to get this show done. And while we’re at it, maybe our dear guests would like to star in tonight’s show.”
“What—really?” Stumped for the umpteenth time, she turned to her two, new friends and found them gaping at Arisce in shock.
Arcana burst into an excited squeal. “We’ll be honored!”
“Hey, the whole town will be watching. Don’t you think it’ll be weird if they find the head of the faction—”
“No matter. Like you said, gods damn!”
Arcana nearly shot through the parted flaps of the Big Top, Raegan quick on her tail. She’d gotten inside faster than Arisce or Valeriana.
“And I thought I was weird.” Valeriana shook her head. “They were right. This city is playing with me.”
Despite knowing of the craziness ahead, she stepped through the tent. It was not as though she had anywhere else to go.
The preparations went smoothly in spite of two, new faces. In no time at all, De Cirque’s gates were opened and festivities began. Many arrived to see the show, especially at the news of a new addition to their performance roster—and some special appearance.
Raegan and Arcana joining the lineup was the first, public display of camaraderie between De Cirque and the Spirit Faction. It also served as confirmation of the alliance between the two groups. While it brought no surprise considering the rumors, there were definitely raised eyebrows. After all, who would not be confused seeing the Lady Arcana and her trusted Lord Commander performing with a bunch of crazy entertainers?
“Milady! I am not sure I am able to last much longer!” A flying plate whooshed past Raegan’s back, forcing him to tip forward and wobble from the lines. Gritting his teeth, he took another step across the tightrope, the balancing pole tipping in his hands.
“You cannot bring shame to my name, commander!”
Seeing Raegan wobble across the line while his liege playfully tried to throw him off by shooting plates at him tickled the audience. Laughter resonated and claps followed in short bursts.
De Cirque’s members were laughing out their brains behind the curtains.
“What is up with that?!” Bonjo howled. “Look at him!”
“Lady Arcana is having too much fun oppressing her commander,” Maridie commented.
“That’s because he often does the same,” Arisce told them coolly.
Their portion, nevertheless, was impressive. At such short notice, they put together a show-stealing performance. The subsequent segments were then pressured to up their game. After all, what’s a finale if it wasn’t the best?
With the intensity and explosions happening in each segment, Valeriana’s story time portion served as a well-needed break. She had come to learn that audience participation helped them immerse in the story more. Hence, she went down the stage and decided she would take someone up with her.
“Who would be brave enough to come with me as we venture deeper into the abyss?” she asked. “Remember, anything could be down below and we are unsure what it will be!”
“ME!” an enthusiastic boy exclaimed. “ME! I WANT TO MEET THE DRAGON! I HOPE HE’S BIG! AND RED!”
The boy’s mother frantically tried to pull back her son but he easily wriggled out of her grip, hands in the air as he yelled through the gap between his teeth. The spotlight swept to the mother and child duo.
Valeriana laughed. “Will it be okay, ma’am?” she asked the mother. At the look of hesitance, the honey-blonde smiled softly. “He will be safe with me and my partner. I can assure you, Tyson is such a loving beast. There will be no explosions happening near us and certainly no plates being thrown.” Her referral to the performance of Arcana and Raegan incited laughter from the audience.
“Please,” the son pleaded. “I want to go, I want to go, I wannnt tooo gooooo!”
Eventually, the mother gave in although the wariness did not ease. The child eagerly approached the blonde and grabbed her hand. She led him into the ring but the boy halted at the sight of the guardian beast. Tyson was a large lion. His very eyes and demeanor were intimidating, especially for a small boy who he doubled in size.
“It’s alright,” Valeriana said. “I’ll let you meet him.”
“B-but . . .” the boy began.
“Didn’t you want to meet a dragon?” she asked him.
His bright eyes watered as he looked up at her. “He’s scary.”
“A dragon is around six times his size and more often than not very mischievous,” she carefully informed. “Much, much bigger. If you’re brave enough, I’ll bring you up to meet him. If not, I’ll return you to your mother.”
A determined frown replaced the shocked fear. “Alright.”
“Alright. Tyson.” She gestured for the lion, extending her gloved hands for him. “Meet . . .”
“Sewa,” the boy enthusiastically answered.
“Sewa,” she repeated.
Tyson, as usual, just went along. He came forward in graceful strides and looked down tenderly at the kid before him. Valeriana carefully placed a hand under the lion’s large jaws as she knelt between the beast and the boy. She took the kid’s hands and guided him to the lion’s soft mane.
“Oohhhhh.” The boy was awed, a smile pushing on his chubby cheeks. It was almost too adorable to look at.
Valeriana almost did not realize how much tension had filled the room. People were on the edge of their seats, watching the exchange. Even the mother seemed ready to rise and run into the ring. It seemed that, in spite of the many performances De Cirque has done with the celestial beasts, there were still many who fear they would . . . go wild, somehow.
Where did this fear stem from?
“Are you ready to meet the dragon?” Valeriana asked.
A large winged dragon rose from the flames of Tyson behind the child, roaring. Sewa stiffened at the sound, his knees knocking.
“Shh.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “We can’t be too noisy. What if a dragon is right behind us?” she asked him.
“I-I think there is . . .” he stammered.
“He sounds big, doesn’t he?”
Sewa nodded stiffly.
“In the count of three, we’ll turn and see. One . . . two . . . three!”
Just before they turned, the fire dwindled.
“Where did it—”
Femeron, molded from Tyson’s flames, trotted up to them. Valeriana’s heart nearly broke at the sight of the little dragon. She was playing with her tail, looking up at them with the largest eyes.
“S-she’s a dragon?!” Sewa exclaimed.
“Was it not to your expectations?” Valeriana laughed.
The audience were just as dubious when somebody shouted, “That must be a baby!”
There were shocked gasps.
Valeriana facepalmed. Well, at least they were participating. “Now the question is . . . where’s her mother?”
“Where?” Sewa jumped, watching Valeriana fearfully.
The honey-golden blonde knelt before Femeron. The baby dragon trotted up to her with exuberance, flapping her small and undeveloped wings. Since Tyson’s fire was hot, the dragon merely ran around the fifth-ranker.
Brows were raised.
“A-are you the mother?” Sewa asked. “But you’re not a dragon!”
“I became her mother,” she said. “She came to me and I could not help it. Perhaps it was also selfishness because I wanted a familiar, but she was hard to resist. She was adorable and lovable in her own right. Wouldn’t you also want to be her friend?”
“Yes, she’s cute!”
“That’s right. Unfortunately, I got in trouble.”
Valeriana continued with the appearance of the drakon, Vallore. She let her voice ring as she told the tale of how they were thought to have long since disappeared, especially after the Great War nearly wiped out their entire race.
After the Abyss and encouraging the dragons to finally leave their sanctuary, they flew back to a camp attacked by the twin-tailed lions. The story continued until the confrontation at the Empyrean Volcano where they were forced to dunk the lions into the boiling lava.
She remembered the time she fell out of Avaro’s back and how she was rolling down the cliff, banging her head against a rock so much she nearly lost consciousness. The pain was sharp and vivid in her memory.
While she was wrapping up the tale, Sewa reached up to touch her face. It was something she didn’t expect as she had been kneeling by his side, looking up at the flaming figures that floated in the ceiling. She held her breath at the stroke of his fingers, her words cut short. Valeriana clamped down heavily on her ability to see memories, making sure that she would see none of the boy’s.
Her practices were bearing fruit. She concentrated on keeping her aura from forging a connection with his. There was no doubt that if she let this slip, he would react and the people would suspect that something happened.
His small fingers traced the scar on her jaw. It was not very big but the discoloration and the bumpy skin would always call attention to itself.
It was the scar she’d gotten from Avaro’s fangs.
“It’s real,” he said. “Valemnia is real.”