CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 5 ♦ Fateful
The stranger in the cloak reminded her so much of how Bertram used to be when they first met. They kept themselves under the shadows so tight it seemed as though a single ray of light would reduce them to ashes. The cloaked stranger seemed to blend so easily into the crowd as they walked forward. It was such a case to the extent that Valeriana had trouble keeping up. Thankfully, the stranger was considerate and stopped, sometimes slowing, so that Valeriana would not be lost.
“Hurry, I have no time to waste on you.”
She was not expecting to be abducted—not really—and taken into an alley. At the moment, she still wasn’t sure whether to consider it as serendipity, but whoever this person was knew Sloan Bane somehow, maybe even be the person herself. She fit the criteria after all—Sloan Bane was a woman and, so far, this person was as well.
Her father hinted that Sloan was a warrior herself. Thinking about what happened back in the alley reinforced this thought even more, hence, she intently stared at the stranger’s back as she followed her through the crowded streets.
Moments later, they came to a full stop before large hill. Tents arose to heights in leveled grounds. They came in all sorts of shapes and colors, with the largest bearing the classic pinstripe pattern and golden tassels. The archway that led to the rise read De Cirque and was riddled with colors so bright it would catch the eyes of anyone passing by.
A haze of roundabouts and ribboning pathways flitted before Valeriana. They made their way in, climbing the steep slopes. There were several people practicing their acts who greeted the stranger. They eyed Valeriana curiously while a few knowing looks flashed here and there. These people were obviously performers, with athletic builds and deft, well-practiced routines.
Valeriana was unsure how to act so she avoided eye-contact and filed close to the stranger. In no time at all, after traversing the grassy fields, they came to a stop before a small tent painted blue.
“In here,” she was told as the flaps parted to reveal a well-lit room. Fairy lights hung on the corners. An artful splash of colors from oil paintings interspersed the fragile walls.
Valeriana entered hesitantly and lifted the flaps herself, letting it fall behind her as she caught the stranger she met take off her cloak to reveal a petite girl around her age, maybe even younger. In terms of looks, she was average and even shorter than expected, but she carried spunk and a do-not-mess-with-me look on her face. Valeriana’s eyes then centered on a woman sitting in the middle of the room, book in hand.
“You’re back, Aliyah,” said the woman on the settee as she snapped what she was reading close and placed it on her lap. Ebony strands curled around her face and drifted down her shoulders as a pair of enchanting, icy blue eyes flickered between Valeriana and the petite girl. She had olive-toned skin and thick, straight brows that complimented her high cheekbones and upturned nose. “What brings you and your . . . visitor?” she gracefully gestured to Valeriana.
“Vannuie, ninaya. She looks for . . . Sloan,” Aliyah replied, her voice turning into a soft whisper. “She uttered something and I thought it be best to bring her to you.”
“I haven’t heard that name in centuries.” The woman crossed her arms and stood. “Voro, mel sava. You can leave us. Take your report to me later.”
Aliyah nodded to the woman, giving Valeriana a swift look that carried hostility before she lifted the flaps and left. Suddenly, there was commotion outside and concurrent yells—both of fright and indignation.
“What are you doing?” Aliyah exclaimed. “You dare eavesdrop, you fools?! Leave now!”
Valeriana heard cries and the sound of footsteps shuffling away, accompanied by groans of disappointment.
“So, now that they are gone . . .” the other woman in front of her began. Valeriana lifted her eyes to meet with hers, finding a turn in her expectations. Perhaps, finally, this person was who she was looking for. “What brings you to me?”
She examined the woman’s face and burned it to her memory. “Garvyn,” she answered.
The woman’s lips parted as she tilted her head questioningly. “Who are you to Garvyn?” the woman asked.
She asked who she was to Garvyn and not who Garvyn was, Valeriana thought.
“I’m his daughter,” she replied. The woman stopped. Valeriana knew she needed a moment to take that in. “He told me to tell you that the sun may rise west one morning, but a bond true will never set. Kinda cliché now that I have to say it over and over. I don’t know how Aliyah—if I got that right—knows about that, though.”
“Aliyah is my foster daughter. She’s been with me before she even knew how to say her name.” She began moving, gliding across the room to retrieve something. Valeriana’s gaze was drawn to her fluttering clothes—a flat, blue dress that reached her knees with a square neckline, a trimmed waist, as well as long, fluted sleeves.
“Sit.” She waved for the couches as she moved into them herself.
Valeriana did, toeing against the wooden table where a small vase of valerianas sat. She eyed the flowers with interest as she looked up at the woman whose hands suddenly held two cups and a kettle. By her elbows, she balanced a plate of muffins.
“Tea and cakes?”
“Yes, please.” Her mouth watered.
The wares landed on the table so smoothly not even a clatter could be heard.
“I can tell you’re famished. Voro, help yourself.”
“Thank you.” She took a muffin and dug into it. Her stomach was celebrating at the sight of food.
“You certainly don’t take after your father, except for the shape of your eyes,” she commented.
“I don’t take after my mother, too,” she said with a small sigh.
“You’re suspecting you’re adopted.” Her long fingers reached for the kettle, pouring tea in her cup as well as Valeriana’s.
“Well, yeah. But some things changed.” She shrugged.
“Garvyn came from the Vernados,” she told her. “And the Vernados have very distinct characteristics similar to yours. You may have inherited his side of the family whereas he is very unfortunate. Is water your element?”
She chewed and swallowed, wiping off the crumbs on the corners of her mouth with her middle finger. “No. It—it’s wind.”
“You hesitated,” Arisce commented.
Goddamn, this lady is sharp, she thought.
But there was one other pressing matter she did not get to ask about. “Are you Sloan?”
The woman looked up and a rare smile lifted her cheeks. “Call me Arisce. I manage the troupe. You were quite lucky Aliyah found you.”
“I don’t know how she did it but she must’ve overheard me asking the Knight’s Wing. Is your identity so serious that she needed to pull the classic alley-dragging crap?” she inquired, her brows creasing in confusion. “But man, that girl is something.”
“It cannot be helped. I offended a lot of people when I first came.” She grinned. “But I’ve already made sure I died in the eyes of my enemies. That is why I make sure that I keep myself under the wraps. Why were you in the Knight’s Wing and asking about me?”
Valeriana shook her head. “Dad expected you’d be in the guild so I went there to look for you,” she said, reaching for her tea and sipping from the cup. It was not too hot, just her ideal temperature.
“Not bad, to think such a coincidence happened, you must be in Aristeon’s VIP list.” She chuckled. “If not, fate would’ve probably brought me to you personally, but I doubt you’d be that lucky.” Arisce hummed in amusement. “I bet you must’ve already used up your entire life’s worth of luck.”
She shrugged. “I guess it is a blessing in disguise. For once, I think the gods are helping me.” Valeriana sipped again.
“Tell me, what is your name?”
“You can guess.” The girl smiled. “You knew my father. He must’ve been predictable.”
“Is it a flower?” Arisce probed and was answered with a nod. Her eyes dropped to the vase before them. “Valeriana.”
And yet another nod.
A chuckle. “Vouie, he is predictable.”
“Any guesses why he named me after those things?”
She was silent for a few moments, a distant look in her eyes, seemingly intoxicated by the memories. “He . . . wanted resilience and strength,” the woman muttered. “And there can be no other thing worth a symbol for resilience aside from lheuim ansur.”
Valeriana relished on the warmth that spread across her body from the drink. “So why a circus of all places?”
“Because joining those guilds have an underlying disadvantage, my darling. The same goes for factions. You have to quickly learn how it goes around here, especially since the non-believers have been proliferating as of late. The Knight’s Wing has considerable influence, yes, but they are directly under the Wind Faction. This means that if another fight breaks out, they get to be deployed without having to say why and they’re obligated to carry out things at the expense of the faction they’re under.”
“I see. Being in a circus changes all that?”
Arisce smirked. “As entertainers, we get to do our own thing. We practice our crafts in ways and nobody suspects it. We travel the city, earn money, and nobody questions it. Under the guise of a circus, we also get to be independent of any faction and guild. Tell me if that isn’t advantageous?”
“Well, I guess.”
“You mentioned something about your dad expecting me to be in a guild. Are you saying he came with you? Otherwise, how would he know about it?”
“No—yes. In a way,” she said. “He, um . . . he died two years ago—well, actually it’s almost three years now.”
Arisce’s eyes widened. “Then how—”
She cut her off. “It’s very complicated. I’d rather not talk about it right now.”
Arisce sighed and leaned back, lifting her elbow to rest on the top of the upholstery. “I can tell what your father’s expectations of me are, at the moment.” She tipped her nose Valeriana’s way and sipped from her cup. “Kontolav, it’s not as though I can turn you away. However, Valeriana, you must listen to me. You cannot join a guild or a faction. They will severely limit your actions and judging by the looks of you, you came to Varialon for something. Willingly, if I might add.”
There was a brief silence.
“Some people don’t get to have a choice,” Arisce said.
Valeriana stopped devouring her muffin and looked up at the woman, her breath stuttering as she chewed and swallowed.
“In Valemnia, Varialon is no more than a myth. It rarely opens for anybody, but if it does, it devours like a famished beast. Very rarely do you have anyone ever leave.”
“You weren’t willing.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Many years.” She sighed. “How is Valemnia?”
“In trouble,” Valeriana answered.
For some reason, those short answers were enough to be understood.
“Varialon is not just a city. To everyone who lives here, it’s as good as a country,” Arisce said as she fingered a muffin off the plate. “Some people who never left made life here and those who were born from those people grew up thinking this world is all that there is. But some people still believe, with the few who enter the city bringing stories from the other world. However, in the recent years, things have changed.”
“What about government?”
“The factions control every town.”
“So it’s not like Valemnia’s united monarchy, okay.”
Arisce drank soundlessly from her cup of tea. “You applied for the Knight’s Wing.”
“Did you get accepted?”
“No. I haven’t taken the qualifying test yet.”
“Well, then, it is a good thing Aliyah found you before you proceeded with your . . . test. The Knight’s Wing is not a viable option for you, whatever you came here for. But before I accept you in the troupe, I need to know about the things you can do.”
“What? Me? In the troupe? You mean perform?”
“What else will you do? Clean?”
“No, I’ve had enough of acting janitor,” she replied, memories of her experience with the Twelve resurfacing.
“Well, then, before you tell me what your talent is, let me give you a little tour.” She stood and put down the muffin she had not even taken a bite out of, motioning for the girl to follow.