Umbra, Episode 1 – The Dove’s Flight, Part I

Art by Syd “Vetyr” Mills

“Would you stay still for a moment?”

Fulvio turned his gaze, a lit cigarette tightly held in his closed lips and his eyes wide open in confusion. “I am still,” he muttered, softly bobbing his head to the beat of the fast-paced electronic song Gherardino put in the surgery room while working.

Located in a large basement in Bassoborgo, Gherardino Farnesi’s clinic and workshop was a daily destination for the shadier augmented citizens in Florydia. Maintenance and upgrades were a crucial part of a cyborg’s life, and Fulvio went to Gherardino once every two months since his augmentations were installed.

A barely illuminated environment immersed in chaos, braids of cables and tubes covering the checker-plate floor, the workshop was filled with holo-interfaced machinery along with circuits, weapons and augmentations collected in the countless shelves. Several desks contained a messy ensemble of terminals, as well as the related hardware and holographic screens.

A metal staircase led to the mezzanine where the surgery room was arranged, enclosed in an energetic field that looked like a cube made of white matte glass. As anyone seeing that place would’ve expected, it was disturbing like a clandestine doctor’s operating room; Gherardino was a clandestine doctor, though, so that comparison made perfect sense. It was the most illuminated area in Gherardino’s shop, the core of his clinic, and the same space in which six years prior the then eighteen-year-old Fulvio had undergone a five-hour surgical procedure.

Surrounded by the blue-lit holographic monitors of the medical diagnostic terminals displaying patients’ vital signs, that area was mainly furnished with a white exam table with a raisable backrest, illuminated by the blinding white light of a surgical lamp. All around it, four mechanical arms connected to the ceiling stayed curled up, since maintenance to Fulvio’s augmentations didn’t require sedation.

Gherardino raised his eyes and goggled, his lips pursed in disappointment. He was a stocky middle-aged man of short stature, his warm-toned olive skin, akin to Fulvio’s, paired with a neat greyish full beard and grizzled wavy short hair. His large, round dark brown eyes were extremely expressive like his square face, marked with the wrinkles expected on a man in his sixties. He had to be quite attractive in his younger years, and he still was a good-looking man after all, although he couldn’t care less about his appearance.

He always wore a black mechanic’s suit, together with a white medical coat. According to him, that often-bloodstained garment gave him a more professional and reassuring appearance. Reassuring, especially.

“You’ll piss me off one of these days,” he commented, getting back to work. He was tinkering on Fulvio’s left forearm, welding and reassembling electronic components.

Fulvio’s limbic augmentation could only be fully opened by Gherardino, who knew exactly how to unseal the invisible sections all at once and keep them split open to uncover the cables, metallic elements and folded weapons lying inside. Placed on an armrest, Fulvio’s arm would be the stuff of nightmares for someone who wasn’t familiar with that sight.

He moved his shoulders to follow the rhythm and took the cigarette away from his lips. “It hasn’t happened yet,” he remarked, “By the way, I’ll choose the music next time.”

“Terra, no,” said Gherardino after a rough, soft laugh, “you have awful taste in music, like in weapons. Your stiletti are old as fuck. Knowing you, when you decide to get a pair of laser blades, they’ll be ancient history.”

“Laser blades are showy crap,” Fulvio commented, shaking his head for a moment before taking a puff. That movement wobbled his flowing wavy hair and the hoop earrings he always wore.

Gherardino raised his eyes again. “Fulvio, come on, look at you. You love showy crap.”

Fulvio chuckled and pointed at him with the two fingers holding his cigarette. “You’re overfamiliar sometimes,” he said. Gherardino stopped operating for a moment and shrugged, nodding with half-closed eyes and a mocking smirk on his face. “Any news about the Carnival?” Fulvio asked after an amused sigh.

“I’ve never cared and I won’t start now, but I’ve heard the royal family will attend tomorrow night with many Nobili, celebrities and shit like that. There’s the opening ceremony.”

“The Dove’s Flight. It saddens me that every year they choose a royal soldier who has no idea how to properly use their Icarus,” Fulvio said, returning the quick, clever grin Gherardino gave him. “Masks will make things difficult for me during these weeks. Do you have anything that could help?”

Gherardino glanced at Fulvio, blinking with a bored look on his face. “Retinal augmentations?” he proposed and huffed when Fulvio shook his head repulsed. “Either way, you wouldn’t recover in time for tomorrow.”

Fulvio started humming and threw some ash on the floor, a gesture after which Gherardino raised his head abruptly with a shocked grimace. He slowly lowered his eyes and whispered a series of colourful curses; there wasn’t much he could do about it, considering he never lent him an ashtray in the first place.

“You said you had a favour to ask,” Fulvio suddenly remembered.

Gherardino nodded. “Mastro Contini purchased some self-charging yellow lights for some masks he’s creating,” he explained, “Legal suppliers are more expensive than I am. Since you have plenty of time, you can take them to his shop for me.”

“You said you didn’t give a shit about the Carnival,” Fulvio teased him with a blazing smile.

Gherardino huffed and lifted his eyes. “This is work, an unfamiliar word for you. Come on, do this for me and I’ll give you a discount for this maintenance.”

Fulvio threw away the cigarette butt, provoking another series of whispered curses from Gherardino. “I could work for you if you were willing to pay me.”

“I have too many bills,” Gherardino countered.

“Which bills? Your job is illicit.”

Gherardino stared at Fulvio in annoyance, but Fulvio’s taunting smile didn’t dim. “Alright, Mastro Contini owes me eight-hundred floreti for this delivery,” Gherardino affirmed, “You can keep a hundred.”

“You’re a darling,” Fulvio said in a mocking tone, before winking and blowing him a kiss.

Gherardino snorted an unimpressed chuckle and took off the disposable gloves he was wearing, throwing them in the tool cart to his right. He then proceeded to close the opened sections of Fulvio’s forearm, which returned to its seemingly organic look. His job might be illicit, but he clearly knew how to do it.

“I suppose you’ll pay next time, as always,” he sighed afterwards and picked up a metal briefcase from the cart’s lower shelf to hand it to Fulvio. “Here, take this. Mastro Contini expects his order by noon at the latest.”

The latter grabbed the handle and quickly got up. The long necklaces laid on his chest, almost bare save for the amaranth floral shirt he wore half unbuttoned, clinked to his movements. His shirt was loose, tucked into black velvet flares he wore with a pair of dress boots.

“You suppose well,” he commented, momentarily putting down the briefcase to wear the velvet blazer hanging on the exam table’s raised back. It was embroidered with silk amaranth flowers, the buttons made of fake gold. “By noon, you said. I have thirty minutes.”

“Exactly,” Gherardino said, his tone emphatic. “See you next time, puero. Say hello to Donatella.”

Bonudie, Dino,” Fulvio replied, moving towards the entrance Gherardino opened in the energetic field through a command on the holographic interface of his hologlove, an armband holding a portable terminal.

Fulvio crossed that doorway while tossing a precious bracelet, unfastened from Gherardino’s wrist when he gave him the briefcase. He grabbed it mid-air and put it in his blazer’s pocket, rushing to leave the clinic and join Donatella who was waiting outside.

******

If in the rest of Taenand aristocracy was seen as an outdated class treated with disdain, in the Princedom of Florydia it represented the most relevant political establishment second only to the Prince. They were called Nobili, part of a vast Council divided into seven levels of importance. The Consiglio Signorei represented the highest step in that ladder of influence, where most of the time corruption insinuated itself; a mighty instrument for many skilful players, engaging in the dangerous game of power that in fact determined Florydia’s fate and future.

Ercole Argenti was a member of the Inquisitori, a magistrate, judge, executioner, and one of the most feared Nobili Homini in Florydia. There were many ways to gain respect in such a position of power, but ever since his youngest years, Argenti learnt to obtain it through violence and force.

An impressively tall and brawny man in his late forties, he was known for his brutality and his legendary iron fists, a pair of shiny silver cybernetic arms decorated with bright white lights. It was said that those who had dealt with Argenti and lived to tell the tale never stopped experiencing trauma-related panic attacks at the sight of silver. In the same way, those who succeeded in overcoming the trauma had to suffer triggering memories and nightmares for the rest of their lives.

Among Argenti’s duties appeared the prosecution of criminals, regardless of their social grade, and the punishment of murderers’ defendants, after the convicts’ crimes were proven. Trials were usually held in the vast courtroom of Palazzo Aulicus, an immense historic building overlooking Piazza Maiesta and residence to the Prince and his family. Pre-trial interrogations and other duties carried out by the Inquisitori took place in the same site, in breath-taking rooms whose walls and ceiling were frescoed with impressive perspective paintings.

Brightened by white perimetral lights, the room Argenti occupied that day was furnished with a solid wooden desk ornamented by floral carvings. At its opposing sides were two green upholstered armchairs with flowery wooden frames.

In his satin light grey suit, worn with a floral shirt from whose unbuttoned collar a silver necklace could be seen, Argenti settled closest to the sliding door, sealed through an inviolable biometric lock that generated a red holographic scanner in front of the recessed handle. At the sides of the door, two men in their elegant grey suits stood spread-legged and with their hands crossed.

A security guard stood at every corner, royal guardsmen dressed in their formfitting white polymeric bodysuits and distinctive white and gold crop jackets with paned sleeves. They also wore augmented reality visors, whose holographic golden interface surrounded their eyes. They all carried plasma assault rifles made of white polymers, loaded with three plasma cells guaranteeing thirty shots each.

“The victims decided to die in the same way, although they didn’t know each other,” Argenti said, his voice deep and intimidating. He slowly tilted his head upwards, an elegant yet menacing pose, a cigarette held in his right mechanical hand. He had alabaster skin and short and thinning hair with a receding hairline, a grey medium-length full beard grew thick on his rough oval face and under his straight protruding nose. His eyes displayed retinal augmentations, coloured bright white. Legal augmentations tended to be quite ostentatious in Florydia, the opposite of what happened in countries like Empiria. “Only a fool would believe it was suicide. You knew your client worked for both, yet you accepted the case. She was doomed the moment she became a suspect.”

The man sitting at the other side of the desk looked down in silence. He was trembling uncontrollably, sweating in fear. In the silence of that room, the man’s breath sounded so loud it almost seemed he was panting. His black hair was dripping with sweat, a drop rolling down to the tip of his nose.

Argenti took a puff from his cigarette, his left forearm laying on an armrest and his right elbow pressed on the other. “Look at me, Egregio,” he continued after blowing a cloud of smoke from his nostrils, “There’s no reason to be scared. The death sentence is no longer applied to lawyers since Prince Bastiano made it illegal.”

The lawyer swallowed and cleared his throat. “My client is innocent,” he insisted, finally lifting his eyes. “She’s a humble woman, an old lady, and both victims were illicit cyborgs. She wouldn’t stand a chance, and you know it. You told me there’s no reason to be scared, so I’ll speak my mind. You know who the murderer is, but you’re protecting them.”

Argenti remained silent for a bit. He took another puff, then he pressed the half-consumed cigarette in the porcelain ashtray placed on his side of the desk. “I value your passion, Egregio. I’m seriously impressed. Yes, I know who the murderer is,” he said, “It’s your client. There’s no such thing as opinions in our job. Solid evidence has decided people’s fate since judicial law became one of the main pillars of civilization. Words are useless when proof contradicts them. Words can also be dangerous when inappropriately directed.”

“With all due respect, Clarissimo,” the lawyer said, his face trembling in concern, “This sounds like a threat.”

“You’re already in a vulnerable position,” Argenti immediately replied, “Why should I threaten you? Please, tell me, are you interested in the Carnival?”

The lawyer looked down again in discomfort and nodded.

“Good,” Argenti said, “The Carnival is not the only occasion in which our respectable citizens wear a mask. Everyone wears masks in Florydia, even when their faces are fully visible. Some hide a rotten soul behind a respectful disguise, others hide beauty behind a horrifying facade. Many others, instead, wear the same mask for so long they become it. Please, get up and come closer.”

Following that order, the lawyer got up from his armchair and walked with hesitant steps towards Argenti while straightening his tie.

Argenti decided to get up as well, and the lawyer started shaking visibly when he had to raise his eyes to look at him. He was a living mountain of muscles, a titan, an indestructible and undefeatable statue.

“People see me as a monster,” Argenti said, staring at him from his remarkable height. “What do you see when you look at me?”

The lawyer looked in front of him, his eyes frantically moving in the nothingness like he was trying to see in the dark. He puffed up his chest and, after a heavy sigh, raised his eyes towards Argenti’s face again. He was still trembling, but he appeared bolder. Death couldn’t scare him anymore at that point. “I see corruption, Clarissimo,” he dared to say, “and a flawed system. Not even in Empiria are lawyers treated this way after a trial. You might be better than this, but you chose to support injustice.”

He would’ve screamed if his breath wasn’t suddenly taken away, the choking grip of Argenti’s cybernetic hand squeezing his neck. Nobody batted an eye when it happened. “Many things can be said about me, but no one has the right to say I’m a corrupt sheep,” Argenti growled, his face rippled with fury, the tendons straining in his neck. The light behind his retinal augmentations got brighter through his rage.

The lawyer started gasping for breath, his face turning red and the veins bulging from his forehead. Argenti threw him down with such strength the lawyer almost bounced on the floor, his back probably broken on impact. Argenti then crouched to press a knee on the man’s belly, the latter suffocating and whining in pain and confusion. “So, you see a monster, do you?”

The man didn’t know how to react, so he shook his head, the tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Liar,” Argenti said, “Typical rat of your sort. This monster will be the last thing you’ll see.”

It almost seemed he couldn’t hear the desperate screams of the poor man while his mechanical thumbs pressed his victim’s lower eyelids, the lawyer’s hands and arms waving convulsively, powerless. Argenti gouged his eyes out, the blood gushing out while the lawyer’s screams became unbearable shrieks.

The man vomited and lost consciousness, his body quaking without control. Argenti barely stopped himself from making use of his iron fists. He punched the floor, to the left of the lawyer’s head, crushing a tile in the process.

Argenti took a moment to calm his pounding heart and laboured breath, the men near the door walking in his direction to come to his assistance. “Vincenzo Costale shall be disbarred for unethical conduct,” he said, cleaning his hands with the tissue one of the men handed him. Once he made sure Costale was still alive, the other activated his transmitter by pressing his left tragus with a finger. “He also needs immediate medical assistance.”

“We’re providing it, Clarissimo,” the one standing at Argenti’s right told him, a muscular, handsome lad whose bronze skin was covered in freckles and whose long hair was a shiny mess of jet-black curls. “I also called Mastro Contini, as per your request. Dominia Dionei’s mask and yours will be ready for tomorrow morning.”

Argenti stood up. “Thank you, Matteo,” he said, patting him on the shoulder when finally on his feet. The young man bowed his head in reverence. “I’ll go see Cornelia immediately. I’m done for today.”

******

Despite the influence of modern technology, Florydia never stopped perpetuating its peculiar traditions. The Carnival, in particular, was one of the most famous and coveted events in Taenand, a centenary festival held for five weeks every year in which the already magical atmosphere of the city reached its peak through endless celebrations, parades, shows and an exciting display of detailed and eye-catching masks.

During that period of the year, everyone in Florydia wore masks and hid behind a different disguise every day, crowding the streets, bridges and public areas with intricate costumes that allowed their wearers to achieve their inmost desires and have the freedom to become whoever they wanted. Alternatively, they could have fun playing a role different from their true selves and experimenting with their identities.

Many events took place during the opening ceremony, starting with the Prince’s symbolic wedding to the city, occurring with the blessings of the Ostara in the main hall of Palazzo Aulicus, and the actual wedding of thirteen young beauties of any gender from the poorest families of Bassoborgo.

It was a symbolic representation of a new life of prosperity, love and continuation of the humblest Florese family lines, that at least during the Carnival attained comparable importance to the Nobili. The Terdecim also obtained a prize in floreti and a house in a purposely built apartment complex located near Ponte Regale, where they would immediately move with their newlyweds and live rent-free for five years.

Tradition dictated that the Princess Consort selected them among the most attractive, young soon-to-be spouses in Bassoborgo; the widowed Prince Bastiano handed that role to Fiona Dei Victori, his oldest son Cosimo’s wife.

After the wedding, the Terdecim and their spouses were settled on thirteen boats and paraded through Canale Imperio in the company of three Ostara and two royal guards each, an anticipated event that followed the acrobatic shows performed in other boats in various Canali of the city and in Piazza Maiesta, where fire breathers and performers, cyborgs usually, paraded their remarkable skills under the lights of the holographic decorations and the incessant fireworks.

In the crowd of masks, lace, silk and feathers filling Piazza Maiesta, two teal figures strode forward to blend in. The taller was clothed in a magnificent taffeta gown with a rigid corset meticulously embroidered with luminous white flowers, a bioluminescent fibre widely used by the best dressmakers in Florydia. They wore a long cape with hanging sleeves and pointed shoulders over a black veil, customary to Florese garb, which covered their head and neck; a feathered tricorn, black satin gloves, and a feather fan completed their attire. The full-face mask hiding their face was mainly white, painted with black flowers and teal curlicues, the lips tinted teal.

The smaller, dressed in the same colours and with an identical mask and tricorn, wore a crop jacket with large shoulders and puffed sleeves, a standing ruff collar encircling the back of the wearer’s neck. The underbust corset was combined with a high-neck ruffled blouse and a pair of embroidered trousers, paired with over‑the‑knee black boots.

“I’ll get the masks next time,” the taller figure whispered, a young masculine voice.

“Stop whining, Cesco,” the small figure replied, a feminine tone. “It’s just a skirt.”

“You’d feel the same in my place,” Cesco countered, “This dress is uncomfortable.”

“I know, that’s why you’re wearing it. I could never.”

Cesco huffed and started flapping his fan nervously. A gentle chuckle echoed from the smaller figure’s mask, who stared at him for some seconds. “You’ve taken to your character, though.”

“Ah, my dear friend Cesco,” they both suddenly heard, Fulvio speaking through the transmitters in their left ears, “You look great in that gown. I wore one like yours once, during Carnival 2078. I even hooked up with a young man who believed I was a tall lady before he approached me.”

“How did he react when he found out you were not?” Cesco asked, while Donatella slowly shook her head.

“I can safely say he didn’t complain,” Fulvio answered, “However, he was mad at me for having stolen his rings and necklace. At least, I suppose he was. I was gone before he noticed.”

“The magic of Carnival,” Donatella sighed, looking around cautiously. “Remind me why we’re here. I see nothing wrong, except for the usual crowd.”

“Mastro Contini’s nervousness didn’t sit right with me,” Fulvio explained. He was observing Piazza Maiesta from the rooftop of one of the imposing buildings surrounding the area, a strategic position that allowed him to clearly see Palazzo Aulicus and Colonna Maiesta, an ancient watchtower from which every year a royal soldier performed the Dove’s Flight. “I haven’t seen a single person whose mask was decorated with the yellow lights we brought him yesterday. I usually don’t care about the Nobili, but something’s going on and it must be stopped.”

“Meeting that prince really changed you,” Donatella teased him, a statement that made Fulvio smirk. “What’s next? You’ll try joining the royal guard?”

“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, dulcina,” he responded in kind. Donatella cursed at him, thus he started laughing.

“Wait, I saw someone with those lights,” Cesco interrupted them with a worried tone, “and despite the disguise, I have an idea of who might be.”

“Shit,” Donatella confirmed, “You’re right, Fulvio. Something’s going on.”

During the Carnival the humblest citizens of Florydia wore remarkable masks and dresses, showing an attention to detail that would’ve made everyone truly equal if the Nobili hadn’t found a way to stand out even on this occasion. Mastro Contini’s luxurious masks were unique, adorned in precious stones and self-charging lights, the same used in cybernetic augmentations. His costumes were crafted with the most precious organic silk and decorated in bioluminescent feathers imported from the Empirian state of Etheiros, taken from the rarest and most beautiful birds in that continent.

The couple crossing Piazza Maiesta to reach the entrance of Palazzo Aulicus was clothed in two of his unmistakable creations; furthermore, the impressive height and build of one of them proved they were precisely Ercole Argenti and Cornelia Dionei. Cornelia wasn’t a Nobile Monna, though, a trait that would’ve made many Nobili turn up their noses, but no one had the guts to openly criticise Argenti for his choice.

The Inquisitore wore a typical masculine full-face mask, mouthless, with a large, squared jaw and a wide nose. The eye holes were protected by indestructible black glass that hid his retinal augmentations and their light completely. The mask was white, decorated with lit purple curlicues except for a strip of yellow light starting from the forehead and ending at the tip of the nose. A dark purple silk veil, long to the shoulders, covered the sides of his head and his neck while on his head sat a black tricorn, elegantly embroidered and adorned with bioluminescent purple feathers. A black cloak with a rigid pointed collar bordered in bioluminescent purple feathers shrouded his immense figure, partially hiding the elegant dark purple suit he was dressed in.

Most costumes were purposely crafted to conceal or transform the wearer’s curves, to fit the mask; however, some people wore costumes that exalted their silhouette. Cornelia’s black gown didn’t hide her shapely figure, the ultimate example of Florese beauty. Her mask was probably one of Mastro Contini’s best creations, richly decorated and inlaid with meticulous care, a full-face mask that in turn portrayed another half-face disguise on the upper part. The flowery curlicues were illuminated by at least four different shades of purple, the lips were painted in black, and the whole mask was surrounded by a blooming crown of black roses and luminous purple feathers. A beautiful mask for a beautiful woman, whose hazel eyes appeared striking from the slanted eye holes. Like Argenti’s mask, Cornelia’s had a strip of yellow light on the nose.

They were followed by five men, all wearing a humbler version of Argenti’s mask and a light grey cloak each.

“Follow them inside,” Fulvio said to Donatella and Cesco, while getting up from his crouched position to move to another rooftop. “Palazzo Aulicus is still open to the public. Find a way to reach the terrace and snoop around.”

“What about you?” Donatella asked, “Are you going to join us?”

“If necessary,” Fulvio replied, “For now, I’ll keep an eye on the soldier who should perform the Dove’s Flight. Nobody is at the top of Colonna Maiesta yet. It’s weird, don’t you think?”

******

The view from the terrace of Palazzo Aulicus was among the most awe-inspiring in all Florydia, a vision only guaranteed to those who had the luck to lean out from the elaborate perforated parapet in the company of Prince Bastiano and his family.

From that position, most of Canale Imperio and the tiled roofs of the quaint buildings overlooking it were visible, as well as the modern, colourful skyscrapers and the overlaying bridges leading to the tallest parts of the city, a vibrant and restless place, dynamic and full of possibilities, yet lacking the timeless beauty of Piazza Maiesta and its historic surroundings.

The ongoing parade on the Canale’s waters was about to be temporarily ignored due to the event everyone was waiting for, the Dove’s Flight, a spectacular exhibition in which a selected royal guard used their Icarus wings to fly over Piazza Maiesta and reach the terrace of Palazzo Aulicus, landing kneeled in front of the Prince. Subsequently, they would be crowned by the Princess Consort, or in the current case by Fiona, with a flower crown crafted by the Firstborn’s children and delivered to the city by the Ostara attending the ceremony.

Not all the Nobili had the privilege to watch the Dove’s Flight from the terrace, since only the forty members of the Consiglio Signorei, the three most prominent Inquisitori and those accompanying them could get that spot along with the royal family.

“Terra, I’m too old for this shit,” Prince Bastiano said, handing his stick mask to Leandro who was standing at his left near the parapet. “I’m starting to believe I’ll get some rest only when I die. I should set up a drinking game next year, like one of those they do in Bassoborgo. Take a shot every time someone greets you with ‘Dominia Maschera’. What do you think?”

Leandro chuckled when his father stared at him with a smirk and his eyes thinned, waiting for his son’s reaction. He was a tall, slim, and distinguished man in his early sixties, his rose-white oval face appearing gruff and mistrustful at first glance also due to his thick pointy eyebrows and his harsh features, a prominent nose and marked expression lines. His dark brown hair was wavy and long below his ears, slicked back with gel.

He held a cane with a beautiful golden handle depicting a lion’s head, the only thing that allowed him to walk properly; he could get augmented, but he had always refused. Dressed in an elegant velvet suit, he sported his princely white cape embroidered in gold flowers, the same colours as his mask. He never put any effort into his costume, although he liked the Carnival after all. That trait was one of the many Leandro inherited from him, despite the latter’s mask being more peculiar that year.

“I think we’d end up drunk within the first hour,” Leandro replied, his radiant smile entirely visible since he was wearing a half-face mask. A stunning owl mask, precisely, so well‑crafted that its embellishments resembled real feathering emitting a bluish-grey light. That mask was decorated with a strip of yellow light. “Keep it. I know you’re trying to dump it on me.”

Bastiano snorted and looked away, shaking his head. “I swear if this thing doesn’t start in ten minutes I’ll freak out,” he stated. He looked at Leandro again, while the latter’s blue eyes stared at the horizon. Leandro was distracted, and Bastiano barely held a chuckle when he noticed him puffing up his chest in a sigh. “You got all dressed up this time,” he told him, throwing a glance at his gorgeously embroidered crop jacket and trousers, coloured like the mask, and the white shirt he wore unbuttoned at the neck to show a pair of gold necklaces.

He recently got his right ear pierced, a small gold feather that dangled when he turned towards his father to reply. “I felt like it,” he said, evasive.

Bastiano nodded slowly, his gaze anchored on his son. “Something on your mind?”

Leandro blinked and looked behind him, studying the crowd. An ensemble of laces, lights and masks, blurred and blended in an inconsistent mixture to his uninterested eyes. He spotted Fiona and Cosimo, the former dressed in a beautiful black and pink gown covered with fabric leaves and embroidered tendrils, wearing the simple beige half-face mask she used every year and an intricate feathered headpiece. She was busy arguing with her scolding husband, Cosimo, who was wearing a tricorn and a cloak but no mask at all; he never wore one, since he considered it useless. A handsome man in his thirties, Cosimo had his father’s skin tone and blue eyes, dark blonde hair and a full beard. If Bastiano’s harshness was apparent, that of Cosimo was genuine; he was a good man, but he seemed to give his public image more importance than needed. He considered duty to be his primary value, a peculiarity that often put him in disagreement with his brother.

“Not really,” Leandro sighed, “Terra, look at Fiona. I’ve never seen Cosimo show her a bit of affection.”

“Cosimo never shows affection to anyone,” Bastiano said, “and Fiona is too sweet to properly blame him. Your mother took every opportunity to tell me I was a stulto.”

Leandro laughed softly, and Bastiano suddenly turned to look at him and laugh in return. “And now you have me to remind you you’re a stulto.”

“No, I don’t,” Bastiano countered, “You’re too fond of me to really mock me. Can I have a cigarette?”

“No, you heard your cerusico. You can’t smoke,” Leandro replied, while Bastiano, with a disappointed look, sighed and handed him the mask once again. “And no, I can’t take your mask,” Leandro reiterated.

After having heard his annoyed tone, Bastiano started giggling. “I don’t like it. Why did Contini decide to put this piss-yellow light in so many masks, anyway?” he said, throwing a glance at the stick mask he was holding. “It sucks and doesn’t fit the design.”

Leandro thinned his eyes to think. He hadn’t paid attention to that detail until then when he noticed that half of the people on that terrace possessed that peculiarity. He couldn’t identify who was behind the masks apart from Ercole Argenti, whose imposing figure was the only distinguishable one.

The woman arm in arm with him was looking around with the same confusion, and a nervousness Leandro started to experience as well when their eyes met. Something was about to happen, and they were the only ones who seemed to notice.

“Give me your mask,” he suddenly said to Bastiano, who stared at him puzzled. “Something’s wrong.”

In the same moment, Cornelia gently shook Argenti’s cybernetic arm to draw his attention. “Ercole, take off your mask,” she said with a trembling voice, raising her worried gaze in his direction.

“What are you talking about?” Argenti asked, his head lowered to look at her.

“We’re marked,” Cornelia exclaimed, shaking in fear, “The yellow light is a mark!”

A panicked scream raised, fear spreading like a disease. When the royal guard intervened, at least ten members of the Consiglio Signorei had already been killed by the lethal energetic blades of one of the deadliest street gangs from Bassoborgo, hired by highly costly patroni for the most difficult missions.

No one saw them arrive, no one had a clue how they could’ve got past security; yet they were there, fatal and quick, fast as the wind, horrific as the void of death itself. They mocked those deaths through the deformed smirks on their full-face masks, each decorated with a crown of curved points on whose tips perched jingling gold bells. They all wore combat boots and leather crop jackets with large, raised collars, red, cyan and green studs on the padded shoulders, and tight-fitting polymeric bodysuits with a motley pattern, a patchwork of multicoloured diamonds.

No one knew who they were except for another figure who quickly dispatched one of the assailants with a plasma shot to the head, melting their flesh and part of the mask. This killer was dressed like one of Argenti’s bodyguards, but her small height proved she’d only trapped one to steal his costume, part of her teal outfit still worn underneath the grey cape. Donatella Cantorino wasn’t exactly a stealthy fighter, but she knew how to sneak in when a mission required it.

She approached Cornelia, a plasma gun in her hands. “Take off your masks before they notice you,” she shouted, “The Arlecchini’s weapons can throw blade beams.”

Piazza Maiesta fell into chaos and the connection to the city’s holographic screen was interrupted right in the middle of the Dove’s Flight. As expected, a man glided from Colonna Maiesta to the terrace where that slaughter was happening, however, the royal uniform was worn by a grinning Arlecchino, white greasepaint on his face and black paint on his lips, a bright energetic golden blade coming from his wrist.

He was headed towards Prince Bastiano, and more precisely towards Leandro who put himself in front of his father to protect him. Someone threw himself upon the Arlecchino and stopped him, falling with him to the floor of Palazzo Aulicus’ terrace and before Leandro and Bastiano’s shocked eyes.

A pair of blue and black Icarus wings, a hood. A black and blue half-face mask, black lipstick on his thin lips. An embroidered crop jacket worn by a slender, gorgeous young man.

A masked vigilante, defender of outcasts, but also a cold-blooded thief and assassin. A shadow. Umbra.

©2022 FREDDIE A. CLARK. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Freddie A. Clark with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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