CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 9 ♦ Opening Act
The Big Top was filled to the brim. The droning chatters reverberated like a hive of bees out for honey. Valeriana soaked in the colorful lights as she was led to watch the show behind a tinted glass in a room above the audience area. The young boy, who introduced himself as Runner, quickly left the moment they reached the door.
Arisce was there, standing poised with her arms folded on her stomach. Everything was quiet as Valeriana further made her way in, scanning the room to see a settee facing the window.
She cleared her throat to announce her presence and was greeted by Arisce with nothing save for a glance. The honey-golden blonde stopped beside the woman, looking through the glass and scanning the entire tent all at once.
The brightest lights rained pure white on the center, the ring was painted red, dotted with colorful banderitas and an intricate network of streamers. People restlessly shuffled whence and whither until a loud voice from the announcer resounded, jolting them to attention. Loud cheers were made, thunderous applause layering the enthusiastic introduction that began the show.
“People of Avenida! Gates open to the most awaited final night!”
The doors backstage shot open. Nuri and Kaai, the two flaming horses, galloped forward. The burning fire that served as their manes glowed under the dimming lights. Aliyah sat atop Kaai, thighs firmly wound around the steed and fingers tight on the reigns. The mare, Nuri, ran a little behind before they skidded to a stop at the very center, ear-spitting neighs grander than the trumpets declaring the arrival of a king.
“Avenida!” Aliyah bellowed, raising one hand in which bright, green flames came to life. Lively sparks flew and temporarily tinted the room green. “Let me hear you cry!”
The deafening cheers grew rowdier. Although Aliyah seemed so small mounted on Kaai, that one moment made it seem as though she was bigger than anyone in the room.
“Ringmistress!” they cried.
“She sounds like a villain,” Valeriana commented. The green fire reminded her so much of the evil queen in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Arisce hummed. “It’s her character,” said the woman. “They like it.”
“And I think she’s playing it very well, even in real life,” she jokingly told her, a light smile on her lips.
The troupe leader sighed. “What did she do?”
“She didn’t do it without reason, but she definitely could’ve had more tact dealing with it. I feel so bad for Beard. The man was just doing his job. He just made a mistake.”
“Aliyah has an intolerance for mistakes and she does not condone them. You can say she’s the perfectionist of the troupe.” Arisce seemed helpless. “It’s a core to her personality.”
Nuri trotted beside Kaai and pressed herself to his side loosely. Aliyah flexibly raised her legs and lifted herself in one smooth motion so that she was now standing, one foot on each back of the beasts. Valeriana raised a brow, unable to deny that she was impressed. Nuri and Kaai weren’t wearing any saddle. How hard was it to balance without them? Minus the rosin.
“She’s done it,” Arisce whispered, watching her foster daughter stand tall—ironically—and proud on top of the two beasts.
“What kind of show are you guys planning to do?” Valeriana inquired.
“Depends on which one you’ll watch.”
Valeriana was put under a spell of confusion at her words. “What?”
It was all dim, but one large flash of light drew the girl’s attention to a silver glint that lined the area around Arisce. She squinted, thinking it must’ve been a trick of the light. However, when she looked closely, Valeriana found the woman’s thin strings tightly wound around each slender finger.
“What are you doing?” she muttered, watching as Arisce tugged and pulled. Mild tinkles came from each string, resonating different notes as the pressure on them changed.
“Not all who came to watch have intentions of just watching,” Arisce replied. “With the presence of treasures in De Cirque, we get a lot of threats and attempted beastnapping. This is just to ensure that nothing funny happens while the show proceeds.”
“Beast . . . napping.” Her forehead wrinkled.
“The Adriedes are priced for their qualities. So are the other beasts,” the woman continued. “And I cannot risk them being taken for there are not many of them in Valemnia as well.”
“Adriedes? Is that what those two horses are called? And they’re already endangered in Valemnia?” The girl could not help but blow a sigh at the thought. “Then they really have to be protected. It’s really hard if an entire race of beasts dies out. They’re too valuable to be lost just like that.”
“You’re coming from somewhere? Sounds like this happened to you before.”
“The Chicovas are gone,” Valeriana said. “Valemnia is experiencing an imbalance.”
“You mean to say—” Arisce’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “How?”
The woman in blue took in a deep, heavy breath as her icy blue eyes fluttered close. “You bring quite the most dreadful news, my dear.” The strings trembled and shifted notes in one vibration as Arisce stiffly yanked, her lips pulled back. Her icy blue eyes flitted about until they focused on a man acting quite suspiciously among the audience. While everybody else had their attention rapt on the performance Aliyah was putting, his attention was elsewhere.
Valeriana followed her line of sight, brows furrowing.
“Attend me!” the woman suddenly exclaimed.
A small breeze wafted from a burst of activity and presences showed up on Valeriana’s radar, catching her by surprise. She whipped around and saw three men dressed as clowns standing in a line, their faces masked by a pure white sheet of form-fitting and stretchable fabric. The girl paled at the sight of them.
“Holy freaking godsdamned shiznits!” She backed. “You guys are creepy. Why are you even dressed like that? And how did you even—”
“Don’t be so surprised,” Arisce told her. “Red, Black, White.”
The three clowns straightened their backs further at the address.
“There are some men who have attempted to enter the backyard.” The woman’s icy blue eyes seemed even icier that moment as she pulled harshly on the strings. Whatever she was doing with all that tugging was making Valeriana’s imagination run wild. “Target the ones up front. The others will handle the back.”
Red, Black, and White nodded stiffly and simultaneously as they rushed out and disappeared out of sight once more. Valeriana nearly pressed her face against the tinted window as she tried to see what they were going to do, yet, she could only barely catch their silhouettes as they appeared amongst the audience, scouring through the crowd and dragging out head after head. Those poor victims could barely make a sound.
“What the hell is going on?” Valeriana muttered, chilled.
Since they were dressed as clowns, they were taken as part of the show and dismissed. They were the perfect camouflage, especially since the audience were more attentive to what was happening in the ring.
“T-this is nuts,” Valeriana said.
Just moments after they left, the men they abducted from the audience were brought up to the room and dumped before Arisce and Valeriana. These men were unable to move, hands bound by rope and mouths gagged.
“How’d you do that in a—that didn’t even take fifteen minutes!”
“They’re clowns,” Arisce said.
“And what does that have to do with this?”
“They don’t take any joke except when it’s theirs.”
Valeriana deadpanned. “Is that supposed to be funny? Did you just make a joke?”
“Depends on your interpretation.”
That didn’t help calm her down. “What is up with dependability around here?”
The clown in red held up a squeeze horn and, well, squeezed. That didn’t make Valeriana laugh, instead, it heightened her dread and panic. She stood there, shaken, staring at the men groaning and grumbling as feet pressed their faces hard on the floor.
Arisce lifted her chin and examined the dumbfounded girl. “You have to learn to stomach this because it’s going to be hard for you later on. We’re more lenient compared to what these factions do to the beasts.”
“Wait,” Valeriana said. “I recognize this dude.” She pointed to one of the men lying on the floor. “You’re that rude, sexist guy on the front gate a while ago!”
“You know him?” Arisce asked.
“I know about his attitude.” She crossed her arm.
Arisce hummed. She didn’t need further details to confirm her thoughts. “Knight’s Wing, I see. The Wind Faction deploying mere affiliates. How lazy. No wonder they lose to the Fire Faction.”
“Continue beating him up, he deserves it!” Valeriana muttered. “On second thought, let me do it! I’ll cut his family jewels and stuff it up his own ass!” The wind stirred at her flaring temper, causing the slightest breeze to whip by the girl’s face. Valeriana stopped short, realizing that she had unconsciously tapped into Cifaro’s affinity with the wind. It made her feel excited, but the dread won out. She still lacked control.
Red, Black, and White turned and exchanged glances, scratching their heads simultaneously. Arisce chuckled in amusement.
“Valeriana, taraven dohn, we do this De Cirque’ie darov and with honor.”
“I didn’t understand what you just said, speak in English please.”
“Calm down,” the woman repeated and was about to continue speaking when her fingers tensed and a string snapped. Arisce shot to attention, frowning and eyes shooting wide in alert. “They’ve cut through.”
Red, Black, and White disappeared again.
“What?” Valeriana whipped around to face Arisce, worried. “What happened?”
“My first line of defense is no longer applicable,” she replied. “I still have to keep this up, even so. I cannot personally go down and see what’s going on.”
Valeriana glared one last time at the man she detested on the floor before rushing out after the three clowns. Arisce didn’t make any move to stop her, merely telling her to return afterward. The girl burst through the door and flew down a short flight of stairs, taking the turns she remembered going through with Runner. After taking a few turns, she came upon the path leading to the backstage riddled with a few bodies, making her stop short momentarily. The commotion behind the flaps pulled her back to action.
She broke through and halted, shocked senseless.
“These guys never learn,” Beard said, holding a broken pail as he stood over two men rolling on the floor in pain. The three clowns were knocking out man after man until finally, there were no more of them left.
Like before, it was quite chaotic.
“Well, what can I say? That’s farther than they’ve gone since ever. How’d they get past the first line of defense?” someone else asked.
Valeriana panted, bent over with her hands on her knees as she took in deep breaths. “You guys—these guys! How can you be in a circus? How is this even a circus?” she whispered.
“How can you be saying that?!” a voice boomed beside her, making her jump in fright.
“Holy—” Valeriana gasped.
“There’s no questioning the legibility of this place, girly. We are a circus!” Bonjo continued, a struggling man’s head pinned under his arm. “Though not just the normal kind,” he said. “Whatever your definition is. After all, we’re the only circus around here.”
Valeriana scratched her head. “You would think I have learned from the first time,” she muttered, putting a hand on her waist. “And yet, history just keeps repeating itself.”
“What did you say?” Bonjo asked.
“Let me go!” the man under his arm exclaimed.
“I’m not talking to you. Shut up,” he told the man impatiently before turning back to Valeriana with a light smile. “What were you saying?”
“Nothing. I’m going to go back to Arisce. You guys don’t look like you need my help.”
“Oh yes, enjoy yourself and let me know what you think of the performance later!”
The chaos continued backstage yet the audience still seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was like an endless brawl. One of the intruders blocked Valeriana’s path. She prepared to defend herself when, suddenly, her supposed opponent was hit by a rock on the head.
“That’s my prey!”
Valeriana shook her head. “Why do I even bother?”