CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 7 ♦ Sly Woman
While Valeriana felt the cordiality from Arisce, the icy blue suddenly turned mischievous. Her cold fingers tapped Valeriana’s cheeks before she shifted directions and motioned for the girl to follow.
“Before I bring you to the Big Top, I’ll take you somewhere else,” she said. “After all, I still need to do an in-depth investigation of what you can do.”
“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I’m not a very talented person.”
“Are you now?” She raised a brow. “Because from how I see it, that is a personal opinion and not necessarily a fact.”
“Come on, people cover their ears when I sing. Dragons wake up from their sleep. My cat literally cowers when I open my mouth. I can’t even draw. People tell me they prefer the blank canvas whenever they see me attempt anything artistic,” she ranted.
“Your embellishments are certainly creative.” Arisce sounded amused.
“I said the truth.”
“You wake up dragons from their sleep?” she dubiously asked.
“Dude, you don’t know me.”
The woman raised her brows but did not pursue the topic. Valeriana had a feeling she raised her brows, not only because she doubted the truth, but because of the fifth-ranker’s manner of speech. “Well, then, let’s start with very basic questions. What are you good at?”
Valeriana did not need to think twice. “Annoying people.”
Arisce’s tickling laughter reverberated. “Oh, Valeriana, you might as well be the clown.”
“Sure, why not? People call me stupid all the time anyways.” She pouted at the thought, her hand reaching for her nape and squeezing. “They seem to like treating me as some sort of joke.”
The woman’s shoulders trembled with hilarity. She shook her head and held her stomach gingerly while Valeriana gave her a sheepish smile. “Then, let’s start with something different,” Arisce told her. “What do you do in Valemnia?”
“I attend Celeste Academy,” she replied. “You know—it felt like yesterday when I came. Things were like a big dump of accidental, crazy shiz and stuff. I almost died trying to enter and then, suddenly, whoosh, I become part of the Twelve.”
Although Arisce was already interested in hearing Valeriana’s story, she suddenly seemed even more attentive. “You’re a ranker.”
“How long have you held the position?” she asked.
“Since I entered,” she said. “But it’s not that impressive although it sounded impressive. I mean, I’ve stayed there for about half a year. And I’ve only been through two duels—well, if you count mine and Corvan’s, that makes it three. Although I lost to him because he’s . . . he’s the first-ranker for the gods’ sake.”
Being reminded of Corvan cued flashbacks she was not willing to have.
“Which position do you occupy? Or should I say used to?”
Valeriana stilled at the realization. It didn’t occur to her that her leave was indefinite. If she stayed out and did not return in time for the next semester, her position within the Circle would be forfeited. The previous titleholder of the position would come to power again.
She slapped her forehead. “Well, fifth, but I guess that’s back to Courtney’s hands now.”
“You need not feel attached to a mere position. Although, yes, it holds prestige, but first and foremost, you must put importance to the things you can gain. You would not have come to Varialon if there were not very valuable lessons to be learned.” Wisdom gleamed in the woman’s eyes as she lifted her chin to look at the fair sky. “And in this place, no matter how twisted, you will gain more in the first few months than the entire eight years of your stay in the academy. Formal education doesn’t necessarily mean learning.”
“I can’t say you’re wrong. I discovered more about myself than when I confined myself within the walls of the academy, but I was inching dangerously close to death’s door during those moments too.”
“Watch your step.”
But the woman’s warning came a little too late. Valeriana heard a sickening squeeze under her right foot and stopped short when she felt she stepped on something.
“Ugh. Don’t tell me.” She looked down found a bunch of smelly gunk under her shoes. “I want to say S and H with an I and a T but that will be people either telling me that was a pun or calling me captain obvious.” She hopped off and leaned forward to take a look at her soles, cringing. She then lifted her head, straightened her back, and began rubbing her shoes against the grass, trying to get the gunk off her shoes as much as she could.
Unfortunately, she tripped on a rock when she stepped back, causing her to lose balance. In an effort to regain it the last minute, she threw out her foot sharply and dove forward. To the girl’s relief, Arisce caught her by the shoulder and steadied her.
“Easy there,” she said. “How clumsy you are.”
“Thanks, I guess.” She righted herself and cleared her throat. “Happens all the time.”
“What’s your relationship with the Wyldens?” Arisce suddenly asked which made her look at the woman in shock. It was then that she saw the woman’s eyes dead focused on the area around her neck, which made her subconsciously reach for the exposed chain, including the key to the tomb of the king. “And I see you have a tight grip on the ranking position. Without the key, there can be no formal bestowal of the fifth rank to anyone else.”
“This, uh . . .” she stammered. “Well, I, um . . .” She swallowed.
“Why did you become so anxious?” Arisce quirked a brow. “I just asked you a question.”
“No. It’s just too complicated to explain.” She was inwardly in tears, begging for the woman not to probe around the dreaded topic.
“You’re quite the girl, Valeriana,” she said. “To think you even baited the son of the Wyldens. Are you planning to become the Arlandian High Lady?”
She could feel a major artery on the verge of bursting with how much blood just rushed to her head. “This is . . .”
“Complicated. You have said that numerous times and looking at your face, it does seem that way.” She turned, much to Valeriana’s relief. Still, there was no telling if turning her back meant she would no longer pursue the conversation. “The keys to King Friedel’s tomb are given to the students for a reason, but doing so also risks the safety of the tomb. It’ll be so easy to just become one of the rankers, snatch the keys, leave the academy, and hand them over to bad hands—demons. However, those keys carry a huge double-edged curse who only acknowledged people can evade.”
“Wait. What? You’re saying I’m carrying some jinx?”
“Somewhat. When you became a ranker, you were first asked to enter the central chamber,” Arisce said. “That happened, did it not?”
“That was called knighting.” Arisce’s forefinger flexed as she pointed at Valeriana. “And whether you can step into that chamber will determine whether or not you’re capable of negating the jinx. Otherwise, even if the key comes to your hands, it will not remain in your hands. There are many requirements to becoming a ranker—and it doesn’t just involve simple duels and showing your prowess in the battlefield. This is to make sure that the keys end up in good hands, with the least probability of betrayal.
“The moment you became a member of the Circle, you’re as good as any Common Knight. The good thing is that in the history of titleholders within the Celestial Knights, almost every member was knighted and was first a part of the Twelve.”
Her eyes were wide. “How do you know this? Headmaster Kylon and Lord Aeron don’t even tell me what the hell is going on.”
“How do you think I know?” Arisce stopped and turned to Valeriana.
“I have many guesses.”
“You’re a Celestial Knight?”
“Close enough.” She smiled and gestured for a small tent beside them. “Come.”
Arisce stepped inside first and Valeriana followed.
“Were you a Celeste? What? Did you serve the king?” she queried.
The moment Valeriana stepped into the tent, she saw a blade rushing straight for her face. Her heart jumped and she quickly evaded, ducking and rolling on the ground. Panting, she looked at Arisce and saw her drawing a thin, silver string. She had a look in her eyes that did not bide well with the girl.
“Oh come on!” the current fifth muttered.
“Pick a weapon, Valeriana, I’m going to give you three seconds,” she said, which made the girl panic. “Three.”
Her azure blue eyes darted around the room, trying to search for something ideal. However, weapons lined every inch of it, dangerous blades gleaming under the dim, golden light.
Valeriana gritted her teeth and grabbed what was nearest to her. She did not have the luxury to choose at all. What mattered was that she had the weapon to defend herself.
She picked up a short knife and defensively held it in front of her the moment the thin, silver string lashed out. It wrapped around the blade under Arisce’s careful manipulating, her fingers curling in different positions, tugging and flicking. Valeriana was unsure what to make of the situation, able to do nothing but stare as Arisce lassoed the string around her weapon and reel it in like a baited fish.
The knife landed square on the woman’s palm as a small smile tugged on her lips. “You pass.”
“Huh?” Her brows knitted.
“The number one motto of this circus is to make do with what you have. Make something out of nothing. Never complain.” Arisce carefully placed the weapon she seized from Valeriana’s hand down onto the table alongside the others. “Life is not a luxury of choices, it’s actually the lack of good ones. You will not be very lucky with what it gives you. So the dumb rock you are left with is something you can only endeavor to turn into gold.”
“O . . . kay. That was nuts, but it made sense.”
“You made the best decision. And good decisions under pressure make the strong. One wrong move is all it takes to burn.”
Valeriana could only stare as the woman walked out of the tent so casually. It seemed as though she never actually threw a blade at her face!
“Let’s go to the Big Top, shall we?”
The journey had turned silent, with Valeriana ruminating over the earlier moments where she nearly crossed to the other side. Arisce was like a murderous, sly fox, leading the girl into a trap she set up herself. For that reason alone, she felt wary and cautious of the woman.
“What was with that string?” Valeriana asked.
“It’s my weapon of choice. Thinner than any blade,” she replied. “It is very unusual and very few play with strings as their main specialty. Except a few . . . people.”
When they got to the Big Top, there was a flurry of activities that Valeriana’s eyes spun trying to take everything in. There were layered seats that circled the center where the grass grew a healthy green. Four, huge poles rose like pillars to a platform above where two people were doing a trapeze. Thick cloth of red and white fluttered faintly above from the blowing breeze.
Her eyes centered on the practicing performers. The classic trapeze from the high ceiling—what Valeriana would’ve casually dubbed as fancy and upgraded air swinging—had a new twist. Instead of simply hanging and reaching, knees hooked on the bars securely performing stomach-dropping leaps in the air, they performed a congregated element-wielding. The two performers curled around the bars as good as any snake would while exchanging blows. In fact, they seemed to be targeting the lines, trying to cut the other one off.
On the other hand, they endeavored to evade the attacks, climbing up the lines like agile monkeys, tugging on their lengths—pulling, pushing, throwing. Their bodies and hands wrapped around the lines like something out of an aerial silk performance as their limbs weaved like ribbons in soft and smooth curves.
Valeriana nearly died from fright when she saw a sharp blade of water cut the line, the girl from above narrowly missing the attacks by hair’s breadth. She ended up falling, into the net below. She bounced, grunting in defeat as her partner cheered from above.
“Take that! I win this time!” cheered the boy from above. His body was so slender Valeriana would not have believed he had male anatomy. In fact, she would’ve just assumed he was flat.
“Good job, Lundie!” Arisce exclaimed from beside Valeriana as the girl jumped off. “You can do better next time, Maridie. Now off you go and help replace those lines. No more cutting until the show tonight.”
“Yes, Lady Arisce.” Maridie dusted off the silver suit she wore and shot Valeriana a curious glance. “Is she the new recruit? Hi—”
“She’s someone you will meet later,” Arisce replied, patting her on the shoulder and cutting her off before she could start introducing herself. “Make sure those things are in place until they’re needed.”
Maridie reluctantly retreated. “Okay.”
“You guys are crazy,” Valeriana said, eyeing the boy playing with Swiss knives on the corner. He wasn’t just playing with them, anyhow, he was juggling them. They would twirl in the air and close themselves before landing on his palms. He would then throw them once again and their blades would bloom open.
He moved and changed his position. One hand continued juggling while the other shot to grab the knives in the air, flicking them for the wooden post where a crudely drawn target sat. To the girl’s shock, they landed dead center—one by one, like a layer of bullets.
“Crazy is De Cirque,” Arisce told her. “We won’t be entertainers who people die to see if we don’t go to the extreme.” She then waved to the boy’s direction. “Aoute!”
The boy with the knives jumped at the sound, his bright green eyes going wide at the sight of the woman. Their color reminded Valeriana so much of a certain person.
“Oot?” Valeriana stumbled after her, her brows furrowing. “How do you even—”
“L-lady Arisce!” He chuckled nervously, trying to fix the mess that was his dirty blond hair. Aoute had a fairly dark complexion, which was ironically a good combination with his eyes and hair.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to target my poles?” the woman chided, her straight brows quirking as she stared down the boy.
“Sorry, it slipped my mind,” Aoute replied meekly.
“Then I’ll have to put some glue in since it seems you’re mind’s getting even more sloppy by the minute. Remove those knives immediately and help set up the stand up front. People are due to start coming in an hour from now.”
“I’m on ticket duty again?” Aoute pouted. “But I want to—”
“When you stop targeting my poles, I might think about putting you on the show.”
The boy nearly stomped off, but he did as he was told.
“Why not?” Valeriana inquired as she watched the poor boy leave with shoulders heavy with disappointment. “His accuracy with those things is nuts.”
Arisce’s icy blue eyes followed the boy as he left the tent. “He’s far too young and he has issues with performance. He freezes. Until he gets over it, then he cannot be onstage.” Arisce blew another puff of smoke as she gestured for Valeriana when she shifted directions and walked. “Let’s go. Magic happens not on the stage, but behind it.”