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Chapter 70 ♦ Prelude

CASeries #5: COSMOS

Chapter 70 ♦ Prelude

With the Fire Faction acting as hosts for the event, they were the ones who first greeted the Spirit Faction and De Cirque short after arrival.

“Look at you folks sowing discord without needing to touch the ground. While it must be strange for you, I am very glad to have you all here,” Aleser said. In his hand was a glass of the burgundy wine.

“Lord Aleser,” Arcana greeted cordially, a bright smile on her face. With the pleasantries exchanged, it didn’t seem as though they had offended each other very much so in the past. “I am very delighted to have been able to come. You have done a splendid job in the hosting of tonight’s event. In spite of my obligation to contribute, I am very glad to present to you my faction’s gifts for the Sovereign Tournament.”

Her fingers clicked and she waved once. With her gesture, her men came forward with a heavy box. They laid the box by their feet and cracked open the lid to reveal Karva wine stacked in threes within. People knew of the worth of those wines and how very hard it is to brew. Hence, the many bottles seen before they eyes at once had caused some onlookers to gasp.

“How very generous of you.” Aleser laughed. “Now the wine I’m drinking is very tasteless. We will have this served and flowing in no time at all.”

“There are two more boxes at the back. It should be enough to accommodate everyone in this room,” Arcana announced.

While they were preoccupied with the many startling bottles of the Karva wine, Valeriana busied herself with casting furtive glances at the Lady Commander. Deli was not wearing any dress but a red coat embroidered with golden threads and embellished with glinting crystals was more than flattering. It declared her position while not undermining her femininity.

“Miss Valeriana,” Aleser’s voice rang with sick sweetness. “I do not see Arisce with you. Did she not come?”

“The troupe leader is not feeling very well and sends her regards,” Aliyah told him as Valeriana looked over her shoulder to find De Cirque, only to see that they were already all over the room going about their own business with no regards to courtesy. The only ones with her were Aliyah and the two leaders of the Spirit Faction—Arcana and Raegan. She saw Bonjo picking up a plate by the buffet while Cat had already inched close to the Wind Faction’s Lord Commander. “What the—”

“It seems your circus is very unruly,” Aleser commented, eyeing the rowdy members of De Cirque. “Anyhow, your companion is a little stubborn. Who knew changing sides didn’t mean changing hearts?”

“What exactly did you expect when you took him in?” Valeriana inquired with an eyebrow raise, eyes briefly searching the room for the blue-haired mongrel. “Was he too much for you, then?”

“What do you mean?” Aleser disinterestedly sipped his wine. “I’m merely keeping him in a leash. You can’t expect a stray dog to be loyal after it’s been fed by another hand.” He laughed. “But he barks at Deli with delight as though he found his long lost master. So now, I only have to worry about one dog.” His fingers brushed the Lady Commander’s neck as he gave her a long, burning stare. “I hope you enjoy tonight. We didn’t hold back for this event. Deli, do show them to their places.”

With that, Lord Aleser turned and walked away to retreat to his balcony up top. They were amongst the first ones to arrive—aside from the Water Faction of course, who was shooting vicious glances their way.

Valeriana gave a short glance at Deli and felt her heart squeeze with sympathy a little at the sight of the Lady Commander. It was no wonder the woman wanted to kill that bastard. Adelline didn’t seem all that rattled in spite of the offensive remark, her face remaining as stiff as a wall. With one hand resting on the curve of her back, she gestured for the open tables and nodded at both Arcana and Valeriana.

“The tables of De Cirque is that way.” She pointed to one of the long tables before the dance floor. “Spirit is right after. We know of your . . . closeness and didn’t want to pry you off from one another. Should you need anything, do tell our servers. We will do our best to see to your needs. Also, here is the schedule for tonight’s events.” She handed them two, ostentatiously decorated envelopes then looked at Valeriana and Aliyah. “The men you sent in earlier to set the stage for tonight’s performance has already done their job, I think. You may see to their work right away if you must. The stage is ready whenever you are. Now, if you may excuse me.”

The Lady Commander lowered her head a little at them before walking away as well.

“Why is she even following him still? How can she bear it?” Arcana inquired with a frown, watching Deli disappear after Aleser as she fingered the edges of the envelope she was handed. “He left her no face at all,” she said. “Their relationship isn’t . . .”

“Good? That’s an understatement. I wouldn’t even blame her if she hated him to the bones. That man is too much sometimes,” Valeriana said. “But gods only know why. And, unfortunately, they don’t intend on making themselves known.”

“They might be here for all you know,” Arcana told her. “What you need is just insight, foresight, hindsight and every kind sight there remains. Just keep your eyes peeled.”

“I can never peel my eyes enough,” she said with a sag of shoulders. “Anyway . . .” she quieted and turned to Aliyah, shooting brief glances at the brewing chaos the members of De Cirque were stirring. “Aliyah, here you go.” Valeriana handed the envelope to Aliyah and all the other girl did was stare at it disinterestedly.

“You take care of it,” she said.

“Uh. Okay. How about the circus? Think you can round them up?” she asked.

“Maybe.” Her café au lait hair curled bounced a little as she brushed it from her shoulders back.

It was only then did the honey-golden blonde notice the frown on the ringmistress’ face. She had a very aloof demeanor but she didn’t look so grumpy before. Wondering what went wrong, Valeriana inched closer a little.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” the ringmistress stiffly replied.

“How about De Cirque?”

“Let them do what they want. I have no intention of holding them back,” she said.

She heard a large shatter and saw that Jester had clumsily plucked a flute glass from the server’s tray—only that he was a little short and ended up tackling the server instead.

“Oh god. You can’t them be like this for the whole night. There has to be some restraint,” she told Aliyah. “If they go wild like this, all that fire they’re firing will end up being shoved right back up their faces and burning them.”

“Hmn,” Aliyah stared on with a hardened face. “I only control what happens in the ring.”

Valeriana had to cradle her forehead in distress. She had expected Aliyah to take over for Arisce. That didn’t seem to be the case. Sighing, she looked at the disaster that De Cirque was causing that she had to pause and wince a little.

“We’ll be by our tables.” Arcana put a comforting hand on Valeriana’s shoulder, squeezing it a little before nodding at her faction members and retreating to the table they were pointed to. With the brush of hand, the lady slipped the ring and clipped it surreptitiously under Valeriana’s arm. The blonde stiffened her shoulders when she felt it and firmly sandwiched her soul ring against her side. She briefly patted Arcana’s hands before she tucked her fingers under and slipped the ring back in the place where it had been before.

By the time Arcana had left, she had already donned Cifaro. Hopefully, it was sneaky enough to not have been noticed by other people.

“Thank you,” Valeriana mouthed with a soft smile. “Runner, honey,” she began, looking about to find the child. She remembered seeing him come. “Runner?”

Hearing his name, the young chap ran up to Valeriana with enthusiasm. “What is it, Val?”

“Hey, what are you up to?” she asked, brushing the boy’s slicked hair back as though it wasn’t in place enough.

“I met another kid,” he told her, turning to find his playmate to see none. “Ah, she’s behind that column.” He pointed. Valeriana followed his finger and saw a small kid hiding behind the column, like he said.

“Which faction does she belong to?” she asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Be careful, okay?” she said with a sigh. They were just two kids, anyhow. What sort of evil could a child a cook up?

“Don’t worry. Livana is really kind.”

“If you say so. Do you mind rounding up De Cirque before you go and play? Tell them we’ll be on that table over there, beside the Spirit’s.”

“Sure.”

Runner ran off to do as she told while Valeriana turned and headed for De Cirque’s assigned table. Aliyah had already gone ahead of her and stood waiting with a pale face. The blonde stopped short to stare at the ringmistress, wondering what went wrong for her to be looking like that.

Blood had left Aliyah’s cheeks as she reached up shakily, brushing her long hair back. Seeing Valeriana stare, she turned and hid her face. The slight movement revealed a twinkle between the strands. While Valeriana had seen Aliyah thousands of times, it was only then did she saw a small piercing that sat on the lobes of her ear. It was so inconspicuous that it looked like an ordinary mole, having the barest of shines. For some reason though, tonight, light seemed to strike it just right that she noticed it.

In spite of the slight confusion, Valeriana turned to focus on the matter at hand, waiting for De Cirque’s members to be gathered. Slowly, they assembled but the few moments it took them to come together, she decided to tear into the envelope to see what the night had in store.

She sighed, looking at the contents. This was going to be a troublesome one. How they were going to tide through this smoothly without Arisce was a big problem.

In moments, the whole of De Cirque were finally together.

“Yo, guys,” she greeted, flashing the envelope in her hand.

“Ooh, what’s that?” Maridie inquired.

“It’s the order of performances and events tonight.”

“So when do we start?” Cat asked.

Valeriana sighed. “Immediately and whenever we’re ready, but it will have to be soon. We’re the only ones performing. The other factions have already contributed to, well, whatever it is.”

“They’re performing.” Bonjo pointed to the musicians.

“Yeah, but that’s different. I meant the factions or those in the tournament. They’re there to entertain because we can’t just yet.”

“Ooohh.” The large man nodded.

“Now, look, you guys. You have got to restrain yourselves a little until the performance. Don’t go pushing people’s buttons all by yourselves because it might not end well,” she said. “And, I know we’re shameless and ridiculous, but please try not to go overboard with it.”

“But—”

Valeriana glanced at Beard as he tried to protest.

“Ah, never mind.” He scratched his hairy mouth.

“Don’t go wolfing alone. The more trouble you get into, the harder it is to get out. We have to be, as cliché as it sounds, together in this. So hold out until the night is over then you can feel free to go wild as much as you want.”

“But isn’t that the point of this night, though?” Cat stated.

“Yeah, but everything has its limit. This event may be bound by rules but tables can easily turn,” she told them with a taut mouth.

“Look at you being the mother!” Beard exclaimed.

“Shut it, Beard. I’m trying to be serious here.” She frowned at him. “And this is no joke at all. If we fail this, we fail Arisce. You don’t want to disappoint her, do you?”

They shook their heads.

“Save all those juices and energy for the show. We have to go and prepare immediately. Aliyah has all the routines down so all we have to do is follow her lead.”

“You’re the floor manager though, aren’t you?” someone said but Valeriana wasn’t able to pinpoint who—it sounded like Aoute.

“I’ll be doing my job too.”

“Are you going after, um, blowtorch?” Runner asked innocently.

“Blowtor—oh, you mean the firelo—” Valeriana stopped short. “Never mind. I’ll do that when we nail tonight. We only have very little opportunity to do what we came for. Priorities. We have to put things to place before we perform. Otherwise, everything we worked hard for for the past few months will have gone to waste.”

They all nodded.

 “Now, let’s prepare before they call us. The back should be that way. The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

“Aye, aye,” they chorused.

The enthusiastic chorus of De Cirque made raised brows shoot their way. They shuffled to positions, this time with a little more restraint. Seeing as they were no longer all over the place, Valeriana felt that the night had taken a slightly better turn. Of course, it would wholly depend on how she would be able to accomplish her task.

A familiar presence flew to her radar as she ushered the members of De Cirque to the backstage. She whipped around, pinpointing its direction. Amidst the dancing bodies, she caught Tiger weaving through.

“Are you going?” Aliyah inquired.

“Huh?” She turned to the ringmistress. “Yes,” she said. She shot another glance at the spot where Tiger last appeared. It had been a while since she last saw the stupid feline, seeing as he had his own business and will. Whatever that cat was up to, it obviously wasn’t simple. “Come on.” She proceeded to the backstage, following De Cirque’s members with Arisce’s foster daughter. “We have a show to prepare for.”

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