CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 56 ♦ Aristeon’s Hands
The competition between Fire and Earth would occur in a few minutes. People still could not get over the results. By the time the announcer recovered from the shock and made his calls, Valeriana had already retreated to the tents. The flaps fell to a fluttering close behind her and she fell flat on the dirt from exhaustion, sweat soaking her clothes and hair. Arisce came to her side as Runner approached with a cup of water.
Valeriana reached for it with fervor and downed the cup in one go. Streams traveled down her neck and chin. She wiped off her face.
“Do I get some more for you, Banshee?” the young boy offered kindly.
The sweet boy nodded and stood to get some more.
“Thank you,” Valeriana said after him. She tipped her head back down and stared at the pointed, pinstripe ceiling of the tent. The fight with Zion had, like before, pushed her to her limits. She needed to end that fight quickly with a single blow. Hopefully, her decision had been right. It might affect them in the long-run, anyhow.
Was it really a wise decision?
“We now have Prevnia and Liberia under our name. Good job, Valeriana,” Arisce said as she bent down and pulled the girl to her feet. “Since the schedule was messed up a bit, we were told we would no longer have to fight the Water Faction at this set. We’ll be facing them tomorrow instead.”
“Festivities are done already?” Valeriana muttered tiredly, hazy from the exhaustion. Runner came back with another cup of water and, like before, she drank it in nearly one gulp.
“Not yet,” the ringmistress replied.
“Aliyah, mel sava.” The woman reached for her foster daughter and waved to the weakened blonde standing before them. “Assist Valeriana and bring her to Tyson. They should fly back to our Giando so that she can rest for today.”
Aliyah nodded. “Come on, Banshee. Don’t come out looking so tiredly after that fight. Maintain a façade.”
Valeriana nodded and wiped off her sweat. “Let me just gather my wits for a moment.” She took deep breaths. “Okay.”
Aliyah and Valeriana left the tent side-by-side and headed for the place where they sheltered the beasts. They encountered gazes of scrutiny and dislike along the way. Zion had turned, alerted of Valeriana’s presence, but they exchanged no more than a short glance before the ringmistress and Banshee left the venue.
Beard was currently attending to beasts, specifically Nuri. The female Adriedes was feeling unwell at that moment, having no appetite to eat or drink. She didn’t want to be moved and was grumpy and nauseous at the same time. Considering they were beasts of fire, the flaring temper was even more unbearable—especially for Kaai.
“Stop pestering me, you stupid beast.” Nuri huffed.
“Are you still feeling unwell, Nuri?” Valeriana inquired softly, approaching the beautiful mare. She retrieved the fireproof gloves, donned them, and ran a comforting hand down her long neck.
“Yes, Valeriana,” the beast replied. “I’m feeling very sick.”
“Let me see you one more time before I go.” She went around the mare, scrutinizing her for any outward signs of ailments. Her coat was shimmery and healthy, anyhow. The flames were, as usual, very lively. There was really nothing physically wrong with the beast.
“You’re leaving?” Kaai prompted.
“I need to go back to John to get some rest. I fought a little bit too soon.” She decided to look at the aura instead, like she had done last time, and breezed through the red flares that ignited around Nuri.
She really was healthy.
“Yes,” De Cirque’s Oread called Maliya spoke. “You should go back. You look very tired.”
Valeriana was dead quiet when she stopped before Nuri’s stomach. She ran a finger over the mare’s lithe body, gloved hands brushing the muscular back. “Oh.” Her eyes widened. “Oh!”
“What is it?” Kaai neighed worriedly.
She laughed. “You’re not sick, hun,” she said with a large smile. “You’re perfectly fine! It’s just that a new Adriedes might be joining us soon.”
Aliyah gasped. “No.”
“Yes,” Valeriana said.
Kaai shuffled restlessly. “What? What? What do you mean?”
“Oh, Kaai, you idiot!” Nuri yelped, trotting in place, flaming mane bursting. “Are you that stupid?”
“We’ll have to get you go back with us to John, Nuri. We can’t have you performing now in that condition.” Valeriana laughed. She threw a glance at the ringmistress, whose cheeks pinked with excitement.
“Congratulations, Nuri! Kaai, you one big sneak!” the two blue snakes hissed.
“This is good news!” Aliyah exclaimed. “Alright. Nuri and Kaai will be coming home with us. Beard, tell ninaya what has happened in the stables discretely. We will need to go immediately. We can’t expose Nuri here any longer.”
The bearded man nodded and bolted out of the makeshift beast-shelter they put up. Aliyah immediately retrieved what they needed to begin the journey home, equipping the two stallions of fire with the gears they wore. The shortie was extra careful around Nuri, constantly asking whether the straps were uncomfortable for the mare.
Valeriana attended to Tyson. The quiet beast spared her a glance and did nothing more. Unlike the other beasts, Tyson truly did not talk. She was unsure whether he didn’t want to—or he was incapable of it. What mattered most, anyhow, was that he had come to accept her presence and became more accommodating towards the honey-golden blonde.
“Come here, we’ll be leaving in a few. Will it be alright if I ride you home?”
Tyson quietly stood and ruffled his wings.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said.
After a few minutes, they set out. Valeriana took to the air with Tyson while Aliyah and the rest traveled by foot. The Spirit Faction was kind enough to lend them some escorts on the way home for an extra layer of protection. They rode through the congested town of Mardiya and into the smooth roads on the way to the waiting Giando in Spirit Faction territory.
Once there, Valeriana let Tyson roam free while she took a bath and promptly made her way back to her tent. She pulled her biggest kept secret out from her pocket and entered the meditative state to recover some of her lost energy, squatting on her bed with the jade sphere sitting comfortably on her open palms. The blonde desperately needed to talk to her father about Zion.
Valeriana emerged into her dreamstate and proceeded to the gardens with the tall gates where Janus sat working on a wood with a sharp knife. Little Val and Delaney were surprisingly locked in a bout of riddles, singing phrases under their breath with no signs of halting. It was only upon her arrival did they pause to look but they returned to the activity shortly afterwards.
“Dad.” She stopped before her father.
His knowing eyes descended on her face and she knew he was retrieving her memories from earlier that day. “Ah, I see. Your other boyfriend came to Varialon and, this time, he rejected you.”
“It’s not about that!” she exclaimed indignantly, foot digging into the dirt.
“If it’s about the pros and cons of that decision, deal with it when the time comes.” Wooden dust stuck on his fingers and he flicked them away instinctively. “You still have many things they didn’t see. Haven’t you already done away with the solo performances? You should be better working as a group with the many routines you practiced the past few months.”
“I know that.” Valeriana eyed the way his hands worked on the wood.
“If you’re worried about going against that boy, don’t. Let him do what he wants. He did tell you he has his reasons. What are you getting worked up for?”
“I don’t want to fight him.”
“You had to fight your own friends before.”
“But he’s working for that crazy bastard! Why not Arcana instead?”
“Because, like he said, he only follows true blood.”
She stopped short. “True blood.” Valeriana let those words sink in, wondering what they meant. It took her a few moments, but she eventually came upon the answer. “You mean he’s following Deli not Aleser?”
“Yes. So, in a way, you’re not necessarily on opposing sides.”
“But how did he know?” she wondered.
“Zion is a baron, isn’t he? He must know her—being a noble himself. Does this makes sense now, to you?”
“How was I so stupid?!” she exclaimed.
“Honey, did you really need to ask that question?” Janus asked jokingly.
“Dad, it’s not funny.”
He chuckled. “It’s all going to work out in the end, you’ll know it. Do you need training today?”
Valeriana shook her head. “No, I just needed to talk to you. Thanks, dad.”
“You’re welcome, Valery. Go on, then.”
“Bye, Little Val! Bye, Daney!” She waved at the two and promptly stirred from the meditative state she zoned into.
She felt a little refreshed from the session so she stuck out of her tent to find that the sun had already set. Elaborate mutters in overlapping conversations invaded her hearing. Sighing, she made her way to the dining area and found all the members of the troupe, including Arcana and Raegan, huddled before the tables. They were, as usual, dining under the skies.
“Banshee!” Lundie waved.
“We thought you weren’t going to eat, but we did save a plate for you,” Maridie said.
“Good job today,” Arcana told her with a large smile, scooting to the side to make some space for the girl on the log bench. Once seated, the lavender-eyed girl wrapped Valeriana into a big hug of gratitude. “Thank you for what you did today. Now Lavanya is definitely in safe hands.”
“You’re welcome!” Valeriana returned Arcana’s bear hug with a huge smile. “Anything for you.”
“Aw!” Maridie exclaimed, reaching over the table with her hands. “I want to join the hug but I’m too far away!”
“Although we currently have Prevnia and Lavanya, we must win another fight to make sure we have a place in the second round. For now, however, we are stable. This is a toast to the good job we have made today.” Arisce raised her cup of the Karva wine Arcana brought to the Hill of De Cirque. “To Aliyah and Valeriana.”
“To Aliyah and Banshee!”
“The hell, you guys.” Valeriana grimaced.
They all burst out laughing.
After dinner was merrymaking. They celebrated in front of the fire, roasting fish they seasoned with salt and soy. Wines were drunk and cheers resounded in celebration. Music was played by the flute—a hidden talent of Bonjo. The quirky melody, partnered with the goofy disposition of De Cirque’s members, made fun come easy. Performances were already quite overused in their eyes, so games rolled—of words, of hands, of voices, but mostly wit.
The hours breezed past. One-by-one, they retreated to their tents to retire. The day had been hectic and exhausting for all of De Cirque. Valeriana decided to go to bed early as well, knowing stressing things would happen tomorrow. But before she hit the sack, she dropped by the beasts to see Tyson tucked into his corner. Nuri and Kaai were nestled against one another, their fire intertwined beautifully much like their slender necks. She checked into the blue snakes and the Oread, petting them, making sure they were comfortable and snug before she went to her tent to slink under the covers.
While today was successful, the worst case scenario should always be expected.
The peaceful night, however, sang a comforting lullaby that was too hard to resist. Soon, there were only snores to disturb the silence. The whole of De Cirque became a quiet rapture of dim lights and moonlit hills.
This was until loud, piercing yowls of a cat and the subsequent crashes roused the lights in the many tents before the sun could. Groans erupted and complains rolled on tongue.
“I have finally found you, you little critter! You’ve been haunting me for the past three months! You shan’t get away!” Bonjo’s voice reverberated.
Valeriana had forgone the jade sphere to grab some well-needed shuteye, but the familiar hiss and shrieks of her cat had thrown her off. With barely four hours of rest, she rose from the bed, fingers clenched and brows furrowed.
“WHAT THE HELL!” she exclaimed, launching to the flaps of her tent with dark bags framing her azure blues. She stepped out to see Tiger attacking the strongman and the strongman retaliating with a wok. She glared at the two. “Can you not see what hour of the night it is, you two godsdamned sunuvabeetches?” Valeriana hissed.
Bonjo caught the cat by the scruff of his collar and turned just in time to meet the agitated blonde.
“Do you see the godsdamned sun?” she continued. “HUH?!”
“I SAID DO YOU?!”
“Then why the hell are you making such loud noises in the middle of the freaking night?” she exclaimed.
“This thing is—”
“I don’t care about the thing!” she yelled. “I care about my godsforsaken—and forsaken it is—sleep! SLEEP! Is the world familiar to you? Or do I have to bring out a fat stick and bash your heads so that you know what the hell the word means?!”
Tiger’s ears flattened at her high-pitched screeches while Bonjo cringed and cowered back. With a stuttering apology, the strongman retreated and Tiger escaped his grasp with a scratch on the wrist, running to some other place—wherever he wished to go to during such hour. Needless to say, in spite of the many efforts to return to dreamland after the scolding, Valeriana ended up rolling out of bed earlier than the usual. She stomped to the top of the hill, where the most space was, and sat to stare at the cosmic skies until the edges of the sun’s brilliant crown tipped the edges of the horizon.
It was the second day of the tournament.
The calming hours enabled her to think through what had become of her the past few months—what had probably become of Valemnia for the past half a year—before she took the many exercises she had learned and stepped into the well-practiced routines she had ingrained into her muscle and instinct. With each move carried the name of the people she missed; a silent mantra so she doesn’t forget the many faces she never had the chance to say goodbye to.
She recalled Zion’s face in the fighting grounds and groaned. While her father had comforted her with the knowledge of the blue-haired lad following Adelline, former crown heir to Arlandia, having to fight the familiar face left a bitter taste in her mouth.
It somehow felt as though she was pulled into a trap and, being as naïve as she was, she gladly took the step.
Then there were the many problems that remained unresolved in spite of the time spent trying to lay down solutions.
There was no Aether, no new knowledge worth discussing save for what they already knew. While Valeriana snuck to the borders a couple of times to wait for the god religiously, he showed no signs of coming. To prevent losing more hope, she diverted her weekends to practice, honing her craft and routines for the tournament. While her hardships had brought fruit, the feeling of inadequacy lingered.
“You’re up early,” came a comment. Lifting her gaze, she found Arisce watching her with a pipe between her fingers. “I thought you were tired from the fight yesterday?”
“Well . . .” she replied, bringing her blade down. “Bonjo found Tiger roaming and decided it was a good time to chase him down.”
“I see. You didn’t pull in your cat for a questioning? I thought you were curious.”
“I didn’t feel like it when it’s so early.”
The woman sauntered closer, head tipping to look at the rising sun. “You’ve gotten better grasp of that technique you mentioned.”
“It’s the last one I remember Seraphina teaching me. I used it on Zion yesterday—just a bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the whole thing.”
“But you’re close.”
“Not quite. There’s still a long way to go.”
“Everything for you is so far,” the troupe leader commented, cold blue eyes meeting hers. “It’s like you don’t look back to see how far you’ve gone.”
“It’s what forces me to run,” Valeriana replied with a soft sigh, palm brushing her forehead. “I don’t like falling behind. I feel like I’ve been wasting my time these past four months. Man, the Twelve—they must be so far already. Tamara would’ve graduated by now. She’ll be a full-fledged Celeste.”
“It may feel like you’ve not seen progress. Trust me, anyhow. Of all the members of the circus, you’ve grown the most. I thought you’ve bloomed but you keep on surprising me with all the limits you surpass.” The woman stepped back a bit, fingering the sleeves of her coat. Valeriana caught this and warily stiffened, her hands clenching around hilt of the weapon she held. “For example.”
Arisce’s strings shot out, lashing at Valeriana’s skin like a snake with bared fangs. The girl blocked the attack swiftly before the troupe leader could nick her, wrist turning to ace the blade steadily and with confidence. It was a move she had pounded into her instinct. Now she called to it like second nature.
“You have more accuracy in your strikes, you no longer hesitate to dive into every move.” Sloan’s arm circled and tugged. Her string followed her movements religiously as though it was but a mere extension of her limb. “Have you not seen how you fared in that battle with your friend?”
“Didn’t you see how bad I messed up in there?” She growled. “I only won because I took him by surprise. Like I’d always done,” she told the woman. “Now that there’s none of that, I’m worried if I’ll be able to tide through this competition.”
“You worry too much. You must always live in the moment.”
“And never think about the future? I don’t think I can.”
The tip flicked like a whip around Valeriana. At times it would try to swallow her whole, trying to wrap around her like a seaweed would a sushi. Yet, accustomed to the many styles deployed by the woman, Valeriana evaded and parried each strike with learned adeptness and speed. Her foot took long slides and swift turns, her body taking her mentor’s attacks in a welcoming embrace.
In these dances, Valeriana preferred a passive style. She went with the flow and the rhythm of the fight like a river would—like she was first taught. She would then harden like water dipped in frost and switch to offence with fluidity, reserving her energy for the big moves like a surging tsunami.
“You have built firm a foundation and grasped a style of your own,” Arisce commented, drawing back the long strings into her sleeves, thereby halting the small test she threw the girl’s way. Yet Valeriana was not so quick to relax, watching the woman with keen eyes before shifting to a neutral stance. “You may have weaknesses, but you are quick patch them up once the enemy catches sight of them. You’ve reinforced yourself with many skills to help with the execution of each attack as well.”
The pipe sat between the webs of the troupe leader’s fingers as she neared the girl, the tip tapping onto the hips of Valeriana. “Improved flexibility, definitely.”
“Why are you even praising me? This is so strange, you used to always comment on things like—”
“A little awkward on the shift when you turn to your left,” Arisce cut her off. Valeriana’s shoulders sagged. “You need to practice mirroring your exercises so that executions are well-balanced. You’re heavily favoring your right.”
The blonde scratched her head.
“If you lose your right hand, you lose everything. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” she lectured. “Practice your left some more. I suppose this is good enough, anyhow.”
“I still have much to learn. This path never ends.” She groaned.
“But learned much, you have. You must celebrate the long path, for when you come to face the final wall, you will realize that the road taken was the worthy goal.”
The woman’s words reminded Valeriana of the door on the wall. “De lavaye vu de hadvann,” she whispered.
“The journey is the destination.” Arisce’s blue eyes steadied into hers for a moment, a small smile lifting the corners of her lips. “Darling, you have done well,” she told her—tenderly, motherly. Fingers brushed Valeriana’s riotous strands, flattening them and tucking them behind her ears. “Your father will be—is—proud of you. Things may be as they are but you carry the spirit of his determination and virtue. You must give yourself more credit. You deserve to be more confident.”
“I know confidence and where it leads to.”
“Overconfidence, you mean. Confidence is good. Too much of it is not. But constantly feeling unworthy is not any better.”
Valeriana sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Today, we will fight the Water, Earth, and Spirit,” Arisce declared. “We must win one more fight in order to make sure we will enter the second round of the tournament. You’ve already done us a wonderful job.”
Valeriana stared at the brunette with wide eyes. “Please don’t rely on me too much. I’m scared I’ll fail you.”
“If I cannot rely on you, Valeriana, we cannot win. You, Aliyah, Lundie and Maridie, and the others, will serve as the driving forces to win this competition. We cannot rely on Arcana and Raegan for this matter. To prove ourselves worthy, we must rely on our strength alone.”
“You see the Spirit Faction as separate,” the blonde countered. “They’ve become a part of De Cirque as much as we’ve been a part of the Spirit Faction. I thought we would be performing a team.”
“But the people don’t see it the same. In the eyes of many, we’re using them as a shield. We can continue doing so but that will force us into the shadows. We will become the arms, the feet, but never the face.”
“But to unite this entire city? Sloan, I think you’re being a bit too ambitious about this. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that already.”
“If you don’t set your goals high, what exactly will you reach?” Sloan countered. “There are many limits to break, Valeriana. I have told you that many times as well. Those limits don’t need adding, so stop chaining yourself to the things you only think you can and cannot do. We—you—are more capable. Your hands are longer than you think. Sometimes, even so, you have to lift yourself to the tip of your foot to grab the last inch.”
Valeriana sighed. “You say the weirdest things that make the most sense.”
“Remember your own words. The only limits you should recognize are the ones you put on yourself. So be ridiculous. Only with madness do you know you’re truly unhinged.”
“I guess saying you’re crazy will probably futile.”