Seen from the outside, the deadly fight between Fulvio and the Arlecchino disguised as a royal guard took the form of an astonishing dance, an unreal display of dexterity, flips and twirls taking place in the chaos of screams, gunfire and stampeding occurring in Palazzo Aulicus’ terrace.
Equipped with a pair of Icarus wings and laser blades, the Arlecchino moved away with a backward roll and cut the air by crossing his blades in a double circular movement. Fulvio knew what that meant, as he knew the Arlecchini full well.
An arc of bright golden light was thrown towards him, the peculiar blade beam for which that street gang was so renowned; an expensive upgrade Gherardino Farnesi installed only on his best clients and Fulvio always refused to get. This knowledge saved him since he unfolded a wing to protect himself right before the Arlecchino could truly strike.
After a jump that made him twirl mid-air, Fulvio almost succeeded in offending the Arlecchino with a lunge to the throat; little did he know his foe would predict that attack and promptly dodge the strike to grab his neck.
Fulvio tried to whisper a curse, but he couldn’t. He grasped the Arlecchino’s forearm as tight and hard as he could, but his enemy was augmented like him and unaffected by his enhanced strength. Although strangled, Fulvio realised he could still use his legs to counterattack; he managed to kick the Arlecchino’s chin, and the latter staggered back, spitting out blood and a tooth. He threw Fulvio away, towards the nearest crowded area, making him hit the Arlecchini and royal guards who were fighting against each other.
Fulvio rolled on the floor for a few metres and ended up face down, coughing, disoriented by what happened. He struggled to get back up, but he managed somehow without getting harmed. He found himself surrounded, six Arlecchini moving in his direction to attack him. Creepy grins approached him, spooky entities coming from the most corrupted gutter in Florydia, the embodiment of demise and of the viciousness that would’ve quickly taken his life.
Terra, he whispered in a sigh, a feeble moment of frustration. “It’s strange to see you out of Bassoborgo,” he said, a phoney cheerful tone coming out from his laboured voice, “What a pleasant surprise. Who sent you here?”
None of the Arlecchini replied. Rather, Fulvio fortuitously noticed a blade beam coming from his right, deflecting it again with a wing. Before retracting it, Fulvio used his wing to hit the Arlecchini who were throwing themselves at him. Three of them were hurled away, one falling from beyond the parapet and down to Piazza Maiesta.
“Come on, I’m trying to have a chat. You’re so serious behind those smiling masks,” he asserted afterwards, an annoying chuckle accompanying his words, while avoiding the attack of another Arlecchino who assaulted him from his left and then moving behind the one who attacked him from the right. Fulvio rolled on the floor and stuck his stiletto right above the latter’s hip. A thick spurt of blood came from the cut when Fulvio withdrew the blade.
Another enemy attacked him, a long series of strikes that Fulvio dodged with remarkable mastery. Their fight went on, and it didn’t take long until one of them fell. The Arlecchina’s head twitched backwards, a plasma shot tunnelling through her head. Fulvio smirked when he felt Donatella’s back leaning against his, and a smile spread on his face when the enemies who possessed retinal augmentations screamed in panic while covering their eyes, their coloured lights shut down by a sudden violation.
That combined attack allowed the royal guards to prevail, and the gang’s mission seemed to have failed although the Arlecchino who had performed the Dove’s Flight managed to escape. He flew away, making use of his Icarus once again, followed by four soldiers who spread their own wings to chase him.
Fulvio got ready to take flight, yet something stopped him as he laid his hands on the parapet next to Donatella and Cesco. To his right, Donatella turned, gun raised and pointed firmly in the direction of the opponents who would’ve certainly defeated her if a fight started. To his left, dressed as another of Argenti’s bodyguards and with his hologlove’s interface still activated on his forearm, Cesco looked in the same direction as his sister, his worried, agitated breath perfectly audible from inside the mask he wore. Getting what was happening, Fulvio turned slowly as well.
Six royal guards were aiming at them with their plasma rifles, one commanding them to put their hands up. None of the three obeyed, but their disobedience didn’t seem to cause the trouble they expected. The royal guards broke the line to let three figures who hadn’t been escorted inside the building pass, and whose presence made Fulvio, Donatella and Cesco look at each other.
On the left, Ercole Argenti walked in their direction without his mask, his sinister cybernetic eyes anchored on them while he moved his head left and right to crack his neck. The guards behind him were still cleaning up the corpses, among which the most battered, beaten to a pulp, were certainly his victims. His cape and suit were bloodstained, indeed proof of that theory.
On the right, prince Leandro tried to conceal a smirk while his spirited light blue eyes gazed at Fulvio through the eyeholes of his stunning owl mask. Fulvio on the other hand didn’t stop himself from leering. He noticed he had shaved off his beard, and his appearance that night certainly caught his attention.
Leandro put a hand on the back of the man at the centre to guide his steps. Prince Bastiano, regal and distinguished, limped in their direction with his cane in one hand and his stick mask in the other. His usual scowl made him indecipherable, hence Fulvio didn’t know what to expect when he halted before him and stared at him in silence.
Donatella and Cesco’s concern was palpable, but Fulvio faced that event with his proverbial nerve. He returned Bastiano’s gaze and even bowed his head.
A slow smile curved Bastiano’s lips, his chest moving up and down in a silent laugh. To everyone’s surprise, he threw his mask away and grabbed Fulvio’s shoulder to gently shake it. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked while chuckling.
“This question must be a family thing,” Fulvio said, a remark none of those present seemed to understand. None of them, except for Leandro who looked away giggling. Bastiano squinted puzzled, therefore Fulvio shook his head with a wide smile. “Never mind, Your Majesty. Who I am doesn’t matter.”
“It does, you saved my life. I see you’re assisted by Inquisitore Argenti’s guards, so I took the liberty to quickly ask him about you,” Bastiano said, glancing at Argenti whose stare remained still and frightening. “I’ll never thank him enough for having hired you.”
Fulvio’s heart sank in his chest when he heard that insinuation. He smiled at Argenti, hoping the rage brimming his eyes wasn’t visible. Argenti didn’t bat an eye, though Leandro looked at them with curiosity. The latter knew the truth about Argenti’s unreal participation, but nobody mentioned it. Leandro wasn’t aware that this temporary lie was convenient to all parts involved.
“However, he’s not the one who made the Dove’s Flight,” Bastiano continued when Fulvio looked at him again. “The ceremony isn’t over yet.”
Fulvio turned to Donatella, who was gazing at him with her eyes wide open. “I believe the opening ceremony won’t reach its end this year,” he suggested, “unless you set up another with a new Dove’s Flight.”
“I’d rather throw myself in Canale Imperio than attend two opening ceremonies,” Bastiano commented after a resounding huff, “Take off your hood, puero. You can keep your mask on.”
Donatella grabbed Fulvio’s arm, and Cesco, filled with the same agitation, goggled at them both.
“I’m shy, Your Majesty,” Fulvio lied, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It is,” Bastiano insisted, making a sign with his raised hand, “Don’t worry, nobody will know except for us.”
That esteemed trio was joined by Fiona, who with timid steps and a soft smile on her face arrived at Bastiano’s right with a beautifully crafted flower crown in her hands. She had taken off her mask as well, and her pretty round face, beautified by a little mole appearing above her upper lip and by her blushed chubby cheeks, was now fully discernible.
“Kneel,” Bastiano ordered Fulvio, who perhaps for the first time in his life felt uncomfortable, “but first, take off your hood.”
Fulvio wasn’t willing to comply with that command, but he also knew that disobeying could’ve put Donatella and Cesco in danger. For their safety, he grabbed his hood’s hem with both his hands and lowered it. He barely held a smile when he saw Leandro’s widened eyes and puffed-up chest at the first proper sight of the wavy, long hair surrounding his sculpted jawline, his typical hoop earrings on his lobes.
He kneeled as requested, his head bowed as expected by anyone who performed the Dove’s Flight during that part of the celebration.
Bastiano encouraged Fiona to walk past him and approach Fulvio. His heartbeat got faster, doubt and remorse raging inside him along with a secret, joyful pride he could never confess. He was a man of Florydia, after all, servant of the fairest Prince who’d ever ruled over that powerful land. Prince Bastiano was showing him his gratitude, an event the mistreated orphan he had been would’ve never bet on. On the other hand, that experience went against the promises he made Aspasia when he decided to become Umbra. In that moment, Fulvio wasn’t a shadow anymore.
Fiona Dei Victori crowned him with the lovely work of the children of the Firstborn, making him a symbol of protection and power, the promise of safety on all Florydia and of perpetual peace. It suited him, but it felt wrong nonetheless until Donatella gently put a hand on his shoulder. A proof she understood his feelings and that she wasn’t condemning him. A proof she was, and always would be, by his side.
When he finally stood up, Bastiano gave a rough chuckle. “I’d pay to be your age and look like an Ostara,” he stated, “you lucky bastard. I’m grateful for what you did and so impressed I’ll forget your wings are clearly illegal. I’ll deal with the press about what happened tonight, but you have to promise me something.”
“It depends on the promise,” Fulvio countered with a grin that made Bastiano laugh again.
“You fucking brat. I like your spirit,” Bastiano said, “Promise you won’t show up again unless you decide to join my personal guard. From the moment you take the oath your augmentations will be replaced, you’ll deal with the fact you’ll never wear a mask again and everyone will know your name. From my part, if you decide to get out of my sight, I promise to forget you even exist and deny I’ve ever met you.”
Fulvio was surprised by such an offer, and the same emotions he felt when Fiona crowned him came round. However, he did not doubt the decision he would make. “It’s a promise I can keep,” he replied, bowing his head again while glancing at Leandro’s gaze, full of anticipation. “That said, I suppose we won’t meet again.”
Bastiano nodded pensive, his eyes thinned. “Unless you change your mind,” he said, a side of his lips turned upwards, “My door is always open.”
The Prince used his cane for leverage and managed to turn without even saying goodbye. Fiona tried to hold him and help him walk, but he shook a hand in the air to refuse her assistance. Fulvio didn’t spend too much time observing them, since he preferred to glare at Argenti who, when the Prince went far enough, decided to walk away quietly. The anger in Fulvio’s eyes didn’t dim while he studied the Inquisitore’s steps, a focused observation that ended when Donatella motioned for Cesco to follow her and briefly caressed Fulvio’s back. “We’ll wait for you outside,” she whispered, walking past him.
“You really do look like an Ostara,” he suddenly heard afterwards. Leandro was still there, his arms crossed on his chest and a soft smile on his rose lips.
Fulvio took off the flower crown and held it in his hands. “Are you enjoying the view?”
Leandro chuckled softly when Fulvio gifted him with a glaring smile. “Absolutely.”
“You saw me kill again and you’re still hitting on me,” Fulvio commented, “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your dedication. Has anyone ever told you your taste is exceptionally strange? I bet that offer was your suggestion, and to be fair I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Leandro shook his head. “It wasn’t,” he revealed, “but I must confess I was hoping you would accept. Has anyone ever told you how much you talk when you’re nervous?”
“I’m not nervous,” Fulvio responded, “I always talk that much. That’s one of the reasons why you should stop hitting on me, you’d get annoyed in no time if we dated.”
“Try me,” Leandro said.
Fulvio remained speechless and kept smiling. He couldn’t deny he was glad to see that goofy prince again. “I like your mask,” he said after a brief pause, “except for the yellow lights. Is it intentional? The owl, I mean.”
“Perhaps. You told me I owe you my life, and I’ll never be able to repay my debt if I don’t find a way to grab your attention.”
Fulvio nodded, an impressed grimace clearly visible on the uncovered part of his face. “Well, it worked. We need a word or two,” he said, “alone.”
“Does that black lipstick stain?”
“Why are you ask—” Fulvio interrupted himself to giggle. “Terra, you have no shame!”
Leandro started laughing. “Do you?”
“No,” Fulvio replied without even thinking, “but I’m asking you to actually talk, though I admit it sounds like a weird request to me as well.”
Leandro unfolded his arms and tilted his head towards the doorway that would’ve taken them to the palace’s internal upper floor. “Come with me.”
It was the first time Fulvio looked at the interiors of Palazzo Aulicus, and the room in which Leandro escorted him was one of the most magnificent he had ever seen. Being a small antechamber to the council rooms, it was almost unfurnished and unused at that time of the night. The lack of video surveillance meant it was one of the best rooms in which to carry a private conversation.
Fulvio threw the floral crown on a bench and walked around, almost swaying while his amazed eyes observed the coffered ceiling, exquisitely frescoed with historical scenarios, the floral decorations, lit by thin strips of golden light, made of white marble. Detailed frescoes also adorned the walls, the overall space illuminated by white perimetral lights. There was nothing to steal, unfortunately, since the sole décor was represented by the wall-mounted carved wood benches. Towards the north side, a balcony overlooked Canale Imperio and its splendid surroundings.
“I thought you were taking me to your room,” Fulvio said once he looked at the bench on which Leandro decided to sit, his back against the frescoed wall and his hands resting on his thighs. “I like this one, but I’m disappointed.”
“You should’ve snuck in from the balcony, then. I mean, we’re still in time.”
“You truly have no shame,” Fulvio teased him while pointing at him, “I was kidding, but you’re not.”
Leandro chuckled and after a sigh moved his back away from the wall to unfasten his mask’s ribbons and take it off. “This mask was intentional,” he confirmed once again, now holding the mask in his hands and examining it pensively. “I didn’t commission it for me. It was for you, to repay my debt. This yellow light ruined everything.”
Fulvio became serious and took some moments to watch him attentively. He undoubtedly had a princely charm, a walking fairy tale stereotype if it weren’t for his stubbornness and his raffish attitude. He wasn’t a fighter, certainly not in a narrow sense, yet he was a fierce maverick who had no fear of the consequences of his impulsive words and actions. He accepted his role in society and used it for what he believed in. Fulvio barely knew him, yet he considered him an open book. A stunning, intriguing open book worth reading.
He sat at his left, reaching out his hand after he took off a glove. Leandro passed him the mask in tense silence. “When Cesco took you to the Orchidea, did you ask Matrona Aspasia about me?”
Leandro replied with a quick nod. “Of course I did.”
Fulvio ran his fingers on the carved feathering, fascinated by its outstanding craft. “What did she tell you?”
“She told me you’re a shadow,” Leandro revealed, “her shadow. She said that from the ashes of a nightingale, an owl made of darkness was born. Her legacy, a flower blossomed from the filth of Bassoborgo just like her.”
Fulvio’s smile was softer this time, sweet and melancholic. “The mask I wear is a gift from her,” Fulvio said, handing back the owl mask to Leandro and putting his glove on, “crafted by Mastro Vittorio Rosselli. I considered I would change it eventually, and this owl mask is almost exactly what I had in mind. You should keep it.”
“Why?” Leandro asked, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“So you can keep it safe for me. When I decide it’s time to change my mask, I’ll come to you.”
Leandro parted his lips in a wide smile. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Fulvio pursed his lips and shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t know what to tell you,” he confessed, “I have something to show you, however.”
In his heart, he knew that what he was about to do went against his pursuit and the identity of Umbra; Aspasia would never approve such a decision, and Donatella would go crazy if she knew, but he didn’t care. That second encounter had to mean something, and it was the perfect occasion to make up for any regret that would otherwise torment him eternally. He got up and Leandro stood up right after him in awe once he realised Fulvio was about to unravel the ribbons of his mask. It took him long, though. Too long.
“I put it on too tight,” he admitted chuckling; thus Leandro laid a hand over his eyes and broke into laughter, “Can you help me, please?”
Leandro granted his request although still laughing quietly. When he succeeded and Fulvio turned to finally show his entire face, Leandro swallowed, breathless. Fulvio curved a side of his lips upwards in a captivating smirk.
“You enjoyed the view on the terrace,” he teased him with a smooth, seductive tone. “What about this one?”
Leandro parted his lips and tried to speak, but he uttered no sound. When Fulvio raised an eyebrow in wait, Leandro whispered a Terra and cleared his throat. “I like this one better,” he said afterwards, and Fulvio’s smile grew wider.
“Keep my new mask and don’t tell anyone about this conversation,” Fulvio said, moving away from him to put his mask on again. “I might come to get it soon.”
He pulled the hood over his head and strode towards the balcony, ready to leave Palazzo Aulicus by flying over Canale Imperio with the aid of his Icarus wings; he stopped when he heard Leandro calling his name.
“Umbra,” he heard and moved his head to the left in silence. “I swear I’ll find you, even if it means reaching out to all corners of Bassoborgo. I’ll find you, and I’ll figure out your real name.”
“There’s no pleasing you,” Fulvio said, “Go on, I challenge you. Find me and I promise I’ll tell you everything about me.”
“You sound so sure I won’t succeed.”
Fulvio smirked. “I totally am, but I want to give you a chance to surprise me. Bonunoctis, Leandro.”
Fast and graceful, Fulvio jumped from the balcony’s parapet and leapt into the void, his wings spread once he was mid-air. Canale Imperio and Ponte Marchesio were still deserted, but the news Prince Bastiano was alive and the assassin had been caught by the royal guards quickly spread through the reactivated holographic screens. Florydia was safe thanks to a mysterious rescuer, a shadow whose heart was filled with delight.
It was time to join Donatella and Cesco and discuss the meaning of Argenti’s intervention, along with any theory about the instigator of that attempted homicide and the possible patrono who had hired the Arlecchini. In that precise moment, however, only a thought crossed his mind, a realisation that made him suddenly curse.
“Shit”, he murmured, “I forgot my flower crown.”
Lucrezio Contini’s shop was located in Palazzo Liberio, a palace near Ponte Marchesio, a historic building transformed into a luxury shopping centre for the Florese upper class.
Arranged on four levels overlooking an immense courtyard paved with a black and white floral pattern, the interiors of Palazzo Liberio were topped by a crossed-arch frescoed vault whose ribs were bounded by cyan lights. The beautiful, ancient frescoes on the walls were covered by an unknown number of holograms and volumetric projections, signs and ads intersecting on an ancient beauty corrupted by the soulless consumerism that was devouring Florydia just like the rest of Taenand.
Coloured neon pink, electric blue and teal, Mastro Contini’s shop was a full-fledged modern store illuminated by white, cyan and magenta perimetral lights, with its geometric lilac and teal furniture and its holographic mannequins sporting full costumes and intricate masks for mere product display purposes.
The walls, however, were filled with real handcrafted masks overlapping one another in an uncanny yet mesmerizing clumping, a fascinating exposition of Mastro Contini’s prolific production. Full face masks covered in lit curlicues and surrounded by colourful feathers, beaked masks covered in gold marquetry, beautifully decorated half-face masks, and many other types and variations disturbingly watched all those who entered through the automatic sliding doors. No surveillance cameras were visible inside the shop. They’d been hidden behind some of those masks, though nobody could be sure which, making the disquieting stares literal.
The shop wasn’t yet open at dawn, but no entry was barred to an Inquisitore. Contini’s shop assistant and apprentice, a curly-haired young woman, was already present in preparation for the opening; she didn’t oppose when Argenti entered with five of his men, and she pointed them towards an automatic sliding door placed behind the counter.
Inside his dimly lit lab, Mastro Contini was sitting at a large desk filled with unfinished masks and crafting materials, properly illuminated by a bright white light coming from a lamp attached to a mechanical arm coming down from the ceiling. The room contained holo-interfaced machines, shelves holding high-tech and manual instrumentations, and other masks piled on one another. That place was a mess, but it wasn’t unexpected.
A man in his early seventies, Contini possessed retinal augmentations, his red irises a gleaming pair of refulgent lights. His straight long blue hair was collected in a braid, a white goatee surrounded his wrinkled thin lips below his aquiline nose, and his skin tone resembled sandstone. He had a sober yet formal look, wearing a gunmetal coloured shirt with rolled sleeves and light grey trousers. He also wore a black apron, soiled with clay, paint and glue stains.
He stopped working and raised his arms, slowly getting up when Argenti’s men entered the room with guns in their hands. He asked what was going on, shouted and ranted until Argenti made his entrance with his quiet, slow steps.
“Have you seen the news?”
Contini startled and swallowed the lump in his throat, the guns still aiming at him.
“Please, sit,” Argenti said after he pointed at the empty seat with an elegant gesture of his cybernetic hand.
Without saying a word, Contini obeyed as Argenti pushed a pile of unfinished ceramic masks on the floor, shattering them into pieces to sit on the edge of the desk. Matteo followed him like a shadow and stood in front of the mask maker while holding a briefcase.
“I personally interrogated some of the members of the street gang who attacked the Nobili and the Prince last night, as well as the designated assassin,” Argenti explained. He paused briefly to bring a cigarette to his lips and light it. “They all gave the name of Vittoria Astini. A patrona from Bassoborgo, apparently, one who only deals with wealthy clients. They also gave your name.”
Contini startled. “I just did my job, Domino,” he said, his voice trembling. “I had no clue what was going to happen.”
“Clarissimo,” Matteo politely corrected him, “The proper term is Clarissimo, Mastro.”
Argenti glanced at Matteo, giving a subtle nod the young man returned. “You had no clue, yet you accepted the job without question and didn’t report that request to the authorities,” he said, speaking to Contini again. He blew a cloud of smoke before continuing. “Don’t insult me, Mastro. You’re in no position to lie.”
Contini bent forward and covered his face with his hands, a desperate sigh echoing in the room. Nobody took pity on him. “What should I have done?” he asked, raising his eyes towards the adamant Inquisitore, “That request came from a Bassoborgo patrona. She arrived in my shop with a bunch of armed men and threatened me.”
“This is not what the Arlecchini stated,” Argenti countered, another cloud of smoke coming from his nostrils, “but let’s assume you’re telling the truth. Why didn’t you report that visit?”
Contini swallowed again. He was sweating and looked down to rub his hands on the apron.
“Don’t lower your eyes,” Argenti said, “I asked you a question.”
“I owed her thousands of floreti. Many thousands. I couldn’t say no.”
Argenti and Matteo exchanged a glance, after which Matteo put the briefcase on the desk and opened it.
“This is not the first time someone tries to kill me and fails, it has happened so many times I’ve lost count,” Argenti told Contini, “However, the masks I commissioned were two. You also put that yellow mark on my diletta’s mask. I’m a man of law, Mastro, but I won’t hesitate to reduce Florydia to ashes if she gets hurt. I have no qualms, and I’m renowned for that, but I can be even more ruthless when it comes to her safety. Have you ever loved someone so much?”
Contini trembled terrified, confused when Matteo grabbed a mask, turned it on the desk’s surface and used it as a container for the yellow fluorescent paint he squeezed from a bottle he took from the briefcase along with a small paintbrush. The mask maker started screaming in horror when two men grabbed him from the elbows to force him to stand up.
“I presume you haven’t,” Argenti said, pressing the cigarette butt on the desk.
The men dragged Contini before Matteo, who unperturbed waited for them to immobilise the crying artisan’s face by holding his chin. He then proceeded to paint a stripe of luminescent yellow pigment from the base of his forehead to the tip of his nose, reproducing the light on the Nobili’s masks. “Please, don’t,” Contini begged him in tears, but Matteo didn’t say a word.
“If you work too much, you risk becoming one with your job,” Argenti continued, taking something from the briefcase and finally getting up. Contini screamed horrified when he realised it was a portable hacksaw with a plasma blade. “Matteo, go talk to the girl at the entrance and tell her to go home. Pay her, if needed. The shop won’t open today.”
“As you wish, Clarissimo,” Matteo replied, putting down the paintbrush and leaving the room as requested.
Contini’s shrieks of pain echoed deafening, screams quickly becoming undefined gurgles. When the shopping centre opened three hours later, Florese police was immediately called by the business owners who came across a shocking surprise lying in front of the mask maker’s shop.
Contini’s chopped face had been glued to the sealed front doors and Happy Carnival had been written in blood right above it. The man’s corpse had been arranged sitting spread-legged on the floor, with the back against the door, a full-face mask hiding the gory mess where his face had once been. Six gunshots to his chest, his throat cut and bloodied.
Florese police set up a blockade and activated all measures to prevent anyone else from casting their eyes on that crime scene, closing the entirety of Palazzo Liberio for the day; no investigation would take place, however, since Argenti would make sure the event was forgotten and treated as a dismissed case with immediate effect. Nonetheless, he knew Vittoria Astini’s client would know. That gruesome composition was a message, the promise Ercole Argenti had started his inquiry and that he wouldn’t stop until he found them.
©2021 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.