CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 6 ♦ De Cirque on the Hill
Arisce and Valeriana left the blue tent for a tour outside. Although the girl had already seen most of it when she first came, there were many things that slipped from her observation mainly due to her avoiding the gazes of the many people—at least, trying to.
The best way to describe the circus was a flurry—colors, shapes, and people. The place was enormous like a grand fair of the sorts that she used to attend when she was a kid.
Emotions came at her all at once—anxiety, anticipation, confusion, excitement, and a lot more. Her confusion stemmed from the fact that she did not know what to contribute should she ever join. Her anxiety, on the other hand, came from her expectations on how people would react. As ironic as it sounds, she did not know what to feel about her other feelings. Aliyah made a lasting impression, not to mention Arisce herself. This place was definitely not simple.
“Why do you look so nervous?” Arisce asked. “People here don’t bite unless you bark first.”
Valeriana eyed the woman inquiringly but said nothing. There was nothing to say.
The breeze was cool and the noise was minimal, save for the crunching of the grass with their every step and Arisce’s humming. The sun was at its highest point, hot to the skin, not very far from a burn. Still, there were people practicing, if not lazing around or doing other chores. Arisce said her greetings in reply to theirs. Sometimes, she sounded praiseful, sometimes scolding, but most of the time, she was prompting.
“What are they doing?” Valeriana asked, eyeing the whatchamacallits they were moving and doing. One particular man lit a bunch of balls and started throwing them in large arches above him. Jugglers were a common sight, but with fire? That was unheard of. Well, they were Valemnians, so that much was understandable.
“Ever heard of elements in art?” the woman asked.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve only seen them being used in battle.”
“That’s another difference between Valemnia and Varialon. People here are very indulgent. It’s mainly because this place has no demons.”
“There are no demons?”
Arisce shook her head. “No. But to make up for the absence of them, the people themselves have become them.”
Valeriana felt the frown burrowing deeper on her forehead.
“There are certain advantages to the presence of demons. All the evil are concentrated into one place so people are prompted to become noble and justly. But that is not the case here. Where peace exists, trouble always brews. It may not be in the lands you stride, but your heart that beats.”
The fifth-ranker opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
Seeing the long silence, Arisce spoke. “Tonight, there will be a show, it will be our last one in this town before we move on to the next,” she told her. “That means you’ll have to make your decision tonight—whether or not you want to accompany the troupe.”
“Is this really just a circus?” Valeriana probed in suspicion, searching the woman’s face for any dead giveaway. “Or do you guys do something else?”
Arisce remained composed, a light and calm expression on her face as she looked around. “Why don’t you find out? Full disclosure of details is given only to acknowledged members.”
Valeriana blew into the stray bunch of hair that fell on her nose until her eyes fell on a bulky man wearing a skin-tight suit. He had a big smile, a puffy hair, and certainly a loud voice. He dropped the weights he was carrying and went over with long, confident strides.
“Lady Arisce!” he exclaimed.
“Bonjo, what are you up to?” Arisce asked, eyeing the man as he stepped forward and pulled her hand for a kiss. “Are you not done?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You should be in the Big Top, then.”
“Just checking out a potential recruit,” Bonjo replied. “Is she a breacher?” the bulky man asked, intentionally lowering his voice.
“Yes, she is.”
Arisce gave a soft smile as she diverted back her attention to the fifth-ranker. “Bonjo is our classic strongman,” she told her. “However, during ordinary days and travel, he’s our skillful chef and baker. His sweets are amazing.”
“That’s . . . wow, you cook?” Valeriana beamed up at the man.
“Of course, madam! You should try my apple pie.”
She could not hide nausea from showing on her face. “Not to be rude, but I hate sweets in general and I have a very bad experience with apple pies.” She shook her head. “I’d love to try your other meals, though.”
Bonjo looked disappointed, but he nodded. “Then I’ll have you try my roast chicken!”
“He makes a killer roast chicken.” Arisce winked. “Well, then, Bonjo, why don’t you come? Valeriana here certainly needs a friend. We have to make her feel welcome.”
“Why not!” Bonjo exclaimed loudly, his brown eyes glinting.
Valeriana smiled, although it did not quite reach her eyes.
“You look so pained, missy,” said Bonjo. “What troubles your heart? The circus is meant to be a joyful place.”
“I’m sure it’s wonderful,” she told them. “It’s just that . . . I left so suddenly.” Her heart twitched as her chest tightened. “But what the hell . . .”
Bonjo opened his mouth to speak as Arisce’s curious glances struck her way. Even so, his words were halted as a roar reverberated, drowning him out. A large lion with wings and two tails walked forward, worming through the narrow space between two tents with all its feline grace.
Although Valeriana was sent jumping at the suddenness, the sight of the creature made her stop short.
“Never saw a—” Bonjo began.
“Twin-tailed lion,” Valeriana said, making the man’s eyes go wide as his cheeks slightly warmed.
“Well, I suppose there are really more of those creatures on the other side.”
“Avaro . . .”
But that was not Avaro. Instead of a white coat, his were golden brown. His eyes were a gentle green and his stature was bigger. Valeriana thought back to the things she left behind once more and remembered Tiger. Where was that little cat now? Surely, he must be really anxious.
“Easy there, Tyson,” said Bonjo as he inched back. “Come on, of all places!”
Valeriana’s heart calmed at the sight of the creature as a small smile tugged at the corners of her lips. Her fingers twitched, registering the urge to pet the beast. But before she could do so, Tyson backed off warily, unfurling his wings and flying off. Valeriana felt disappointed. He was quick to put distance between himself and the fifth-ranker before she even had the chance to step forward and talk.
“You met Tyson, you can expect to meet the others,” Arisce said as she resumed their pace.
Valeriana turned to Arisce worriedly as she followed and kept up. “You don’t put them in cages, do you?” She shot Bonjo a glance and found him silently observing her.
“What do you think of this place?” The woman huffed dismissively. “We do not cage them. They are powerful beasts, worthy of respect and dignity. Besides, the twin-tailed lions serve as a balance to fire. That is something people in this world are unaware of. As breachers, it is our duty to protect them.”
She stopped. “There are beasts in Varialon,” she muttered. “There are beasts—Arisce, are there any Chicovas here?”
“I’m not sure, I have not found any, but it is not impossible,” the woman replied. “Beasts here are very rare, Valeriana. They’re one of the reasons I put up a circus. If they are not under the care of anyone, they are hunted down by the factions. Tyson is sought after by the Fire Faction since they believe that his blood essence grants them power. They are not wrong. It is indeed the case.”
“Hunted—what? They hunt the celestial beasts?” Her jaw dropped. “What in the world is going through their minds?”
“This is why I’m telling you this place is very different from Valemnia.”
“And the gods don’t care? Don’t they go running around this place all the time?”
“They don’t really meddle.” The woman in blue shook her head.
“Are you looking for the Chicovas?” asked Bonjo. “For what reason?”
“Complicated ones.” Valeriana bit her lip. The dejection spiked in. “I’m sorry. But if you keep the beasts, then how do you protect them?”
“Don’t doubt my abilities, my dear.” Arisce flashed her a cunning smile as her fingers gracefully whipped out a pipe, her lips around the mouthpiece in two seconds flat. Within moments, there was a smell of mint and something else Valeriana was not familiar with. “I’ve had many poachers trying to kidnap my beasts and I assure you they met a bad end.”
Bad end sounded bad, but Valeriana could not bring herself to pity those people. Instead, she was even murdering them in her mind. How come this place was so twisted compared to Valemnia?
“You look so relieved.” Bonjo mussed his slick, brown hair.
Valeriana squared her shoulders, torn between the feeling of satisfaction and guilt. “If you don’t put them in cages, how do you keep them?”
“They know they’re protected,” Arisce said. “So they don’t leave. We don’t force them to do shows with us but they have to earn their keep because nobody here is pampered.” She puffed out a cloud of smoke. “You seem intent on these beasts.”
“It’s just that . . . well, it’s a long story.” She scratched her head meekly.
“Then you would have to talk about it some other time.” Arisce shifted her gaze to Bonjo, mist escaping her lips with every word. “I reckon that most of the others are assembled in the Big Top by now?”
“Yes, of course. Most of the others are still finishing their tasks, but Aliyah should’ve had the first-string assembled for the dress rehearsals.”
“Good. Go on ahead and help with the last minute arrangements.”
“Right away, milady!” Bonjo dashed ahead, disappearing after a turn.
Arisce and Valeriana took their time walking as clouds rolled in to cast shades from the sun. The fifth-ranker sighed in relief, feeling the silken breeze snake between her fingers. The colors, even the people, were a little overwhelming. Judging from the sheer size of it, this place was big enough to accommodate over a thousand spectators.
“How many of you are there?” Valeriana asked.
“We’re over fifty-three, including you, that is.”
“You’re pressuring me, aren’t you?” Valeriana’s lips slanted in doubt.
“Do you have anywhere else to go?” Arisce waved.
“Then what keeps you from saying yes?”
“Doubt. Self-doubt,” she replied.
“You’ve never performed in front of many people before?”
Arisce hummed. “How much did you disclose to the Knight’s Wing?”
“Information I’m certain will not be harmful. I lied about the things I’m sure they can’t confirm and told the truth on those I cannot hide.”
“Smart move. The lesser known about you, the better. Good thing is that they will not know more.” The woman hooked her arm with Valeriana’s and pulled her close. She walked on heels with noble grace while Valeriana stumbled beside her in her scratched boots—shoes she had been using ever since she arrived in Valemnia. “You need not feel pressured about performing. People take time to know what they really can and want to do. You just have to join the family and help around first. After all, we have a big night tonight. It will give you a chance to know what goes on behind the scenes.”
Valeriana nodded. “Okay. I’m sure it’s what dad would’ve wanted anyway. He seems to trust you a lot.”
Curiosity and sadness sheened Arisce’s eyes as she looked at the girl, her fingers tightening around Valeriana’s arm. It wasn’t uncomfortable or threatening in any way. The gesture, coupled with the emotions that bled through her face, seemed rather . . . grasping, for the lack of a better word—consoling, even.
“So you will join.”
“Yes.” Valeriana nodded and smiled.
“You have not seen the entirety of it yet.”
“I’m willing to take a chance,” she responded.
“Then that’s good enough.” Arisce leaned down and pressed her cheek against hers. “Welcome to De Cirque, Valeriana. Welcome to the family,” she whispered. “But for your debut, you must have a new name.”
Valeriana met her icy blue eyes as the thick smell of mint from her pipe wafted under her nose. The cold blue was warm and true to her words—welcoming.
Perhaps Varialon was not that bad of an idea after all.