CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 8 ♦ Thirty Minutes
The backstage, though smaller than outside and messier, was indeed magic. Arisce told her to sit in one corner to observe as the woman barked out instructions. Although several people came forward to greet her, Arisce’s sharp eyes had them backing down and returning to whatever they were preoccupied with prior to their pitiful attempts. The entire time, the girl’s attention was rapt on every detail, her eyes wide and her brows occasionally shooting to her hairline. Valeriana could not believe she would be joining these people. The way Arisce was pushing them to activity resembled a strict military officer. This woman was unforgiving.
“Doors! First people are in!” they heard a startling yell. “Gates are opened!”
Valeriana could see the anxiety flash on the faces of the performing artists, feet shuffling nervously and sweat breaking on their foreheads that she herself could not help but feel the same.
“Thirty minutes before the shoooowww!” Maridie groaned anxiously. “Lundie, you must make sure to catch me!”
“If I don’t, I won’t live up to my name,” the boy replied. “Cat! Good luck on that sequence! Don’t fall off the line!”
The woman with thick, winged eyeliner looked up and smiled. “You too, Lundie and Maridie. Make sure not to cut each other’s head off.”
The fifth-ranker sat awkwardly in her corner, watching the people move around in spinning circles, looking for things they either lost or could not find the last minute. They were barking out jargons she was unfamiliar with.
It was chaotic. If Arisce was not present, then it would be more so. The woman was like the eye of the storm. She was the calm amidst the pandemonium, watching everything with hawk’s eyes and keeping watch for anything unacceptable.
Arisce, after a long while, finally turned to Valeriana. “Come with me, my darling. You haven’t seen the rest of the backyard. I apologize for making you wait. I cannot have you running around because some of the equipment are fragile and some areas are dangerous.”
Valeriana’s head was already spinning with the many twists and turns. To think there was even a ‘backyard’ to top it all off!
The woman gestured for the path which people have been using to go back and forth. Arisce herself went through it a couple of times, with Valeriana dying of curiosity to check it out. However, she didn’t want to intrude and disobey the woman—mainly due to what happened in that tent.
“Have the beasts been gathered?” Arisce exclaimed as they broke through the flaps that separated the next section.
“Prepped and ready!” echoed a voice which was followed by a chorus of animal calls that Valeriana had been hearing since a while ago. They might sound like ordinary calls to any other ears but Valeriana could hear layers of voices.
The ‘backyard’ was indeed like one. It was a large, open yard with tall walls of wood that blocked all eyes trying to peer through from the other side. There was a clutter of equipment scattered about, some stuffed on the corner and some moved near the backstage for easy access.
Arisce headed straight for a circular, open shed ahead that housed the beasts. They weren’t gated in exception for the roofs and dividers separating each beast from the other. Truly, it was as she was told. These creatures had the liberty to move about as they wished.
Among the creatures was the golden twin-tailed lion she saw earlier, two horses with flaming hooves and mane, an Oread that resembled Eres’ familiar Arsene, and two snakes with bright blue scales. Each one was unique and came alone in exception for the horses and the pair of blue snakes intertwined tightly with one another.
“Although Tyson is being stubborn again,” the same man who answered Arisce before quickly followed, his large mustache moving along as he spoke. “I think he’ll be particularly difficult during the act.”
All Tyson did was turn and glare at the man, pulling back his lips to reveal sharp teeth. “I do not do well with people who suffocate me with a collar.” His fur trembled from the low growl that climbed up his throat.
“It’s because you made his collar too tight,” Valeriana said, eyeing the flashy straps of red and gold that wound around the lion’s neck.
Arisce and the man turned to her. Even Tyson himself seemed suddenly curious.
“He looks uncomfortable,” Valeriana continued.
“He just looks grumpy to me,” the man commented gruffly.
“Beard,” Arisce chided, narrowing her eyes at the man. “Loosen his collar.”
Beard’s mouth curled in distaste but did as he was told and loosened Tyson’s collar. The lion shook his head, his ears, and thick mane fluffily moving along as his green eyes met Valeriana’s.
The Oread’s intelligent eyes studied the earth-born. “Honestly, Beard is too insensitive to our needs. Even Lady Arisce fails in that area most of the time.”
“I have a complain too,” the flaming horse neighed in displeasure as he threw a hoof forward and pounded on the dirt. He had a caramel coat and matching glowing eyes. “The saddle doesn’t fit me very well. I’m going to get a girth sore this way.”
“Oh, Kaai,” said the white flaming horse beside it—a female one by the sound of it. “I think he accidentally switched our saddles because I don’t feel like mine fits me too. Gods forgive, it’s not as though she can hear you, though. Just focus on that stupid clown over there and see how those pants don’t fit him very well.”
Valeriana’s eyes gravitated towards the clown passing by. His pants were too tight around the ass but the area around his thighs was horribly baggy. She nearly busted out laughing but held it down and let a small smile seep through instead.
Arisce followed her line of sight and shook her head. “Jester, where did you get those pants?”
The clown stopped and spun to look at the woman. He was struggling to move properly so the movement seemed more like a waddling penguin trying to turn. Valeriana bit the inside of her cheeks in an effort to contain her laughter.
“It’s for the show.” He fixed the red button on his nose and blinked.
“I know. But how are you supposed to move properly?” The woman in blue continued to probe.
“Don’t worry, Lady Arisce. It’s all part of the act,” he said with a wink.
Arisce furrowed her brows. “You got the wrong measurements, didn’t you?”
The clown chuckled nervously. “No. It’s funny this way.”
“Suit yourself. It’s not as though it’s a big deal.”
The clown waddled away.
“Also, Jester?” Arisce held out a hand as she motioned for the man to stop. “Please fetch Aliyah. She’s the first in the lineup, after all. I want her here in five.”
“Alright.” He then resumed waddling.
“How many beasts do you have under your care, by the way?” Valeriana asked.
“We have seven.”
The fifth-ranker did a brief count. “There’s only six in here, where’s the last one?”
“Oh, you’ll meet him later.”
“Lady Arisce!” A yell reverberated across the yard. “We’ve got a problem with the rigging!” A young man bounced forward and stopped at a distance after yelling the news.
Arisce stopped short, sighed, and rubbed her forehead. There was a moment of hesitance with the way she looked between Valeriana and where she was needed.
“I’ll be there!” She then patted the fifth-ranker on the shoulder. “Valeriana, please wait here a moment. You can look around but do not touch anything you’re unfamiliar with. I’ll be back in no time at all to bring you out for the start of the show. If not, I might send Runner for you.”
“Alright.” The fifth-ranker nodded, watching Arisce hasten over to the young man who called her before without waiting for her reply. After the troupe leader disappeared from her sight, Valeriana turned to the man named Beard and looked him in the eye.
“What you lookin’ at, missy?” He quirked a thick, caterpillar brow as he shuffled over to lift a pail of clean water.
“Do you need help?”
“Nah, I don’t need it,” he replied.
“Is it alright if I . . . um, well . . .” She scratched her head. “If I see them up close?”
“Depends. Have you held them before?” Beard asked. “I’m not willing to have some trouble made. There’s only a couple minutes before we start the act.”
“You don’t have to worry,” she said with a smile.
“Don’t touch them,” he told her, pouring the water into the trough before the Oread who ducked and lapped it up. “I’m going to fetch some more water for the other beasts. They need to stay hydrated.”
With that, he turned and walked off.
Valeriana had no intention of obeying him, stepping further into the shed. She stood in front of the flaming horse named Kaai and admired the burning beauty. The horse seemed wary of her first, turning its head at her dismissively.
“You’re making me self-conscious,” Kaai said.
“Sorry,” she told him. “Do you need help with that saddle?”
“Thank the gods, how’d you know?” he asked casually.
“I have my ways,” she replied with a smile.
A neigh of surprise came from the flaming horse. “Did you just answer my question?”
“In a way, yes.”
Suddenly, there was a commotion within the stables. Layers of voices nearly deafened Valeriana that she had to shush them. Not only was the noise distracting, it would also draw over attention they didn’t need.
“She hears!” said the Oread, ears twitching as her hulking form perked up in excitement. “Are you a Direct Controller?”
“Don’t tell anyone. My element is wind.”
“How will you pass that off?” the earthen beast probed.
“Like I said, I have my ways.”
She could see the excitement gleam amongst the glowing fire in Kaai’s eyes. He huffed noisily and restlessly shook his head. “Before you change my saddle, grab those gloves. You might end up burning yourself because I’m too hot,” Kaai said, the orange flames flaring around his head.
Waves of heat fanned the girl’s face that she instinctively stepped back. Valeriana quickly recovered, chuckling at his words and snatching the gloves hanging on top of the divider. She pulled them over the ones she already had on, flexing her fingers to adjust within the rubbery fabric.
“Alright, we have to do this fast since Beard will be back anytime,” she told him. “I might just not know how to do this, though.”
“What are you doing?” A voice boomed, making Valeriana jump from where she stood.
Her attention snapped to Aliyah dressed in a red tailcoat with black, leather pants and brown boots. The petite girl had a strength in each step, so heavy that she left deep marks on the dirt as she paced forward. Her hair was wrung tight in a high ponytail with a golden hairpiece dangling among the lengths, emphasizing the square jaw and slanted eyes.
“He had on the wrong saddle,” Valeriana replied as the petite girl stopped before her with the sharpest glare she’d ever gotten.
“And how did you know?” Aliyah demanded.
“He was restless, so was the other one. They must’ve switched by accident.”
Aliyah brushed past Valeriana and reached forward, with bare hands, to pet Kaai. Since she was a short lady and the flaming horse was quite tall, they were seeing eye-to-eye. Fingers brushed the snout of the beast before diving straight for the saddle—checking, patting, and probing. Suspecting eyes shot at Valeriana, which made her flinch at the hostility they carried.
She turned back to the beast. “Kaai, are you uncomfortable?” she asked him.
The flaming horse neighed and stomped his right hoof once, bobbing his big head up and down in a very horse-like manner. “Yes.”
“It’s Beard again, isn’t it? I swear to Arland,” she muttered under her breath, deftly untying the saddle from his back and throwing it to one corner. “Never mind the saddle. I’ll ride you without one.”
“Are you sure you’re able?” said Kaai. “Last time you tried, you fell off.”
Valeriana did not comment, stepping back to let Aliyah do the work. The fifth-ranker took off the gloves and placed them back where she found them. She figured Arisce’s foster daughter did not need them since she handled Kaai with bare hands just fine.
After attending to the steed, Aliyah moved to the mare. “Nuri, it’s alright,” she said as she untied the horse’s saddles and dumped them on the side like what she did before.
“Thank you,” Kaai said as he looked at Valeriana.
The fifth-ranker nodded as she threw her gaze over her shoulder, only to find Tyson staring. The moment their eyes met, however, he diverted his attention elsewhere and retreated further into his room in the stable, curling up tight against the wall. The other beasts were quite noisy. Their chatters were like layers of instruments in an orchestra—but not as harmonious as one ought to be.
“Show starts in ten!” they heard a yell.
Valeriana stood back and watched as Aliyah rummaged through the stable before she found what she was looking for. There was a large can she pulled out from a compartment somewhere at the back that contained some kind of white powder. She scooped a handful and sprinkled it on Kaai and Nuri’s back, dusting her hands after she deemed it enough.
“What was that?” the fifth-ranker could not help but ask.
Aliyah did not bother looking her way. “Rosin,” she later replied.
“Opening act!” cued another voice.
Beard rushed back to the stable, holding a full pail of water. When he saw Aliyah and the discarded saddles, his brows furrowed questioningly. “Aliyah, what are you doing? The show starts in ten, why did you remove the saddles?”
“You put them on wrongly,” Aliyah told him, pulling on the bridles of both flaming horses and guiding them out of the stables.
“I’m pretty sure I put them on properly.” Beard scratched his head, looking admonished as he let the pail down. His hand shot to his thick mustache, his fingers brushing through it thoughtfully.
“You switched their saddles by accident,” the petite girl continued. “When the horses aren’t comfortable, they do not perform their best. In De Cirque, the performance must not be any less than the standard.” Although there was no hint of impoliteness and reproach in her voice, the plain coldness of it was enough to instill embarrassment into the man.
“I—ah, I’m sorry.”
Aliyah said nothing to reply and continued guiding the horses out.
“Opening act! Aliyah!”
“I’m coming!” she yelled back.
Valeriana stood beside the man, watching as he turned red. “I can’t say it’s alright,” she said in a low voice.
“Yeah, you can criticize me too. I do nothing right around here.” Beard leaned over and picked up the pail once more, pouring the water over the trough by Tyson’s quarters. He filled it to the brim until the contents sloshed over.
“No. I think she was a bit insensitive with how she handled that,” she muttered. “But that’s just my opinion.”
“She’s just doing her job,” Beard said, looking up at Valeriana with troubled eyes.
“You are too,” she told him, looking up when she heard loud steps coming their way.
The young man who called over Arisce a while ago now stood in front of Valeriana. Freckles lined his smooth face as a tuft of dark blue hair sat atop his head. He had a light smile, long and lanky limbs, and a dirtied brown overalls.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Valeriana looked at him, returning his smile. “What is it?”
“Lady Arisce told me to fetch you for the commencement of the show.”
“Alright.” She nodded, shooting one last look at Beard. “Thank you.”