Leandro had spent weeks searching, weeks in which the inefficiency of justice and the thought of Umbra tormented him. Weeks spent trying to find answers by himself. He thought about the owl mask in his room, and how much he hoped the day its owner would come back to claim it would arrive soon. He wasn’t eager to give up, yet he felt like his efforts were fruitless and his search had reached a dead end.
His last hope lived in Callelungo, where it was rumoured a woman who knew everything about anyone lived, and, supposedly, could grant wishes to those who asked her.
Sandra Dominici was a lady of mystery and nobody knew what her job was exactly, as nobody could determine her precise morality. In the most hidden corners of the city she was known as Striga dei Canali, a witch who cast spells and curses and performed secret rituals the Ostara had willingly forgotten to pursue harmlessness and harmony. She had never confirmed the rumours stating she was a sorceress, nor had she ever denied them.
Leandro didn’t believe Sandra was a witch, thus he presumed she could be a spy, a former patrona, or perhaps a very religious amante who worked independently. Whoever she was, if the fact she knew everything was true, she probably knew about both his father’s assassin and Umbra’s real name. Her house was a known location, and Leandro was more than willing to give it a try.
She lived in an old building facing a concealed waterway of Canale Laguna, where an ancient, stopped clock was placed just outside and to the right of a window. Leandro reached his destination in the early afternoon aboard a rowing boat, guided by an oarsman he paid generously to stay silent about his identity.
Once on the narrow pavement beside the water, he waited for the boat to leave and walked until he arrived before a wood-coated door covered in carved letters. It was said it was necessary to carve one’s initial on the door below that window at the time indicated by the clock, regardless if it was night or day, and Sandra would decide to grant access to her house or not. Leandro had an unsettling feeling, but he also had no choice.
He checked the time through his hologlove, then he pulled a switchblade from his jacket’s pocket, a beautifully engraved knife with an iridescent blade he brought with him whenever he went to the shadiest parts of the city. He used it to carve his name’s initial on the door, an act after which he cleared his throat, put the weapon away and rubbed his eyes with a nervous sigh.
He was startled when the door opened and needed a few seconds to realise it was a simple, remotely controlled, electronic lock. A rundown staircase with a rusty floral handrail led to the upper floor, the once beautiful dark red walls now covered in ripped wallpaper, damp spots and fluorescent multicoloured scrawls. Leandro took a deep breath and entered, climbing the stairs that took him to a door that hung ajar.
When he crossed it, the atmosphere became strangely cosy although pervaded by mystery. The door opened into a room that combined a homely parlour, a small library and a chemistry lab, with a wide workbench arranged right under the open window overlooking the waterway. Its surface was filled with alembics, modern stirrers, measuring devices and laboratory glassware containing fluids of various kinds. It also included two terminals, whose four holographic screens were showing formulae written in a peculiar alphabet along with a video surveillance transmission of the outside door.
The bookcases full of storage drives and decorated ampoules were arranged against the east and west walls, and they also contained few paper books, rarities made even more precious by their visible antiquity. In front of the bookcase placed east lay an examination table equipped with leather restraint straps, the sole sinister piece of furniture in the room. At the centre of that space, below three hanging show globes, three elegant armchairs upholstered in floral blue velvet were placed around a small wooden triangular table.
Sandra was there, and she moved away from the workbench, taking off the white coat she wore and hanging it on the hatstand placed in the northwest corner. “I hope you don’t expect me to kneel before you,” she said, turning around. She was a charming olive-skinned woman of unknown age, with long wavy hair black and blue highlights, clothed in a black suit with grey floral embroideries, her jacket closed by a large belt and sported over a transparent lace corset. “This place is my Princedom, Your Majesty. Please, take a seat.”
Sandra pointed towards the central parlour with a graceful movement of her hand. She wore a half-face mask, black and adorned with grey curlicues and rhinestones, her eyes an unusual, bright amber.
Leandro closed the door behind him and lowered the hood of his leather jacket. “Sandra Dominici, I presume,” he said, approaching her with cautious steps. She raised a tight-lipped smile, enigmatic on her full lips painted dark purple. “I had many theories about your actual occupation, yet I expected anything but—”
“I know,” she interrupted him. She waited for Leandro to sit, then she took the armchair in front of him. “There are two of us in all Taenand, both from Callelungo. I’m the only one who decided to stay. The Decim can’t be exactly defined as supporters of our practice, hence I don’t condemn Cerusico for leaving.”
Leandro sharpened his eyes and stared at her with a wary look. “Did he leave Florydia for this reason?”
Sandra crossed her legs and overlapped her hands on her knee, unmoved and elegantly impassive. She had the appearance of a woman in her early forties, but her gestures and her composure gave her a timeless aura. She was ancient, fascinating, and remarkably uncanny. No wonder many mistook her for a sorceress.
“He left because he wanted to. Florydia became too high-tech for his taste, for our city lost its essence and detached itself from the Anima Mundi. Cerusico is bound to nature, as nature is bound to the eternal process of transformation. When transformation leads to the coldness of metal, it’s a failed experiment. The blackening is just the first stage of transmutation,” she explained, “it’s not the sole, nor the last. For my part, although I agree with Cerusico to some extent, I tend to adapt. Can I offer you some nervinia?”
Leandro chuckled after that question, and Sandra gave him a soft smile. “No, thank you,” he politely declined, “and I swear it’s not because I don’t trust you.”
“I wouldn’t blame you,” she replied, “in any case, I believe you. I’m surprised by your visit, but I can guess why you’re here. The Striga who knows all might know who wants Prince Bastiano dead, right? Unfortunately, the inhabitants of this city are fond of mysteries and legends and tend to romanticise my knowledge too much. I’d gladly help you if I knew something about what happened during the Dove’s Flight, the problem is I don’t know, and I’m not so involved in Florese low-life to obtain this information.”
Sitting bent towards the small table, Leandro raised a closed fist and pressed it against his lips, his eyes lowered. He later interlocked his hands in the blank space between his spread legs, and Sandra waited patiently for him to speak again, what happened when he lifted his gaze to look at her. “The attack is not the only reason I came to you,” he declared, “Someone saved my father’s life.”
Sandra nodded. “Unlike the information about your father’s assassins, his identity is something I’d never reveal even if I knew it. Let’s, however, assume I do,” she stated, “What’s the reason behind your curiosity?”
Leandro looked down, a soft, aching chuckle coming out from his chest and his lips turned upwards.
Sandra blinked with the hint of a smile, her eyes thinned when Leandro lifted his gaze once again.
“I see,” she continued, “Umbra is unique, I grant you. From my point of view, he’s the embodiment of the Opera. He causes death and brings hope, making himself a blend of darkness and light. He dirties his hands in the redness of blood and bathes in the fire of vengeance to spread his wings and rise in flight. Through his perfection and with his mere existence, he personifies all the stages of the process.”
“I presume you know him personally. What’s your relationship with him?”
“I supply him with poisons, mostly. His mentor introduced him to me when he obtained his augmentations and started his mission,” she clarified, “I’ll be honest, I’ve never understood if he wanted to become Umbra in the first place, but he was born to be what he turned into. When I met him he appeared eager to take on this role, but deep in his heart, he was scared. When I looked into his eyes I saw a terrified puero, but when I meet him now I see the shadow, the thief, the assassin, and the avenger. I still see that puero, in some way, but nowadays I see no fear. He achieved the reddening, the final step of the becoming.”
Leandro sighed disheartened. He learnt something new about Umbra, but not enough to give him a trail to follow. From the way Sandra described him he seemed almost inhuman, basically the shadow he affirmed to be. However, Leandro was confident that what made him so passionate about that mysterious, charming man wasn’t his alleged perfection or his cryptic essence.
“I believed you could help me, and I considered you my only hope, but now I realise I’m just wasting your time like I’m wasting mine,” he concluded, “I can’t force you to tell me anything about him, and it’s probably better this way since it means he can trust you. On the other hand, Umbra could be the only one who’s capable of uncovering the head of the conspiracy against my father. I’m asking you to give me a hint because I need to find him, no matter the cost. I’m honestly hopeless.”
Sandra uncrossed her legs and got up, walking towards the bookshelf behind her. Leandro followed her with his eyes and noticed her picking an ampoule containing a reddish liquid. “Very few Nobili and celebrities attend Messalina Fiorabaldi’s night dances, but some get an exclusive invitation. Are you one of the lucky ones?”
Leandro shook his head, a puff of air coming out from his nostrils. “I’ve always declined her invites and she eventually stopped sending them,” he declared, “I’m not exactly a prude, but I don’t want to share my fun with high society. Besides, considering who Dominia Fiorabaldi’s husband is, I’d do anything to avoid meeting him.”
“You’d never meet him during these events, believe me,” Sandra affirmed once back to her seat. She handed Leandro the ampoule, and he grabbed it and observed it puzzled.
“You may want to attend tonight’s dance. Messalina set it up at the underground level of the Dionysia, a club in Regiadimora. Wear a mask and tell the bouncer you’re my envoy, this medication will serve as proof since Messalina takes it regularly.”
“Why should I go? Is there a chance I’ll find Umbra there?”
“You asked for a hint and I gave you one,” Sandra affirmed with a smirk, which Leandro returned. “In case you don’t find him, I’m confident you’ll find some of the answers you’re searching for.”
Regiadimora was located in the most forward-looking part of the city, home to Ponte Regale, Florese nightlife and glamorous lifestyles. From that popular destination, the visitors could enjoy the best view of the city, if only they weren’t blinded by the capitalistic and materialistic mindset that had corrupted the quintessence of Florydia since the influence of Cybernetica started spreading all around Taenand.
Submerged in colourful skyscrapers, holographic ads, excessive luxury and showy fashion, Regiadimora was the district favoured by the vainest members of society, and the most disregarded by the wisest. It was a district of excess and the best location for Messalina Fiorabaldi’s night dances.
The forty-one-year-old Messalina was considered a nonconformist Nobile Monna due to her mentality, which represented the one the Nobili held before the Empirian way of thinking started insinuating itself into her homeland’s culture. She was a bearer of complacency and enjoyment, an advocate for self-determination and autonomy over one’s own dignity and body, a living proof that erudition didn’t clash with sexual freedom.
She was a role model to many people of different social backgrounds, who saw her as a pillar of the Florese traditional way of life. No one could explain how she could be both wife and mother of the most close-minded men in Florydia since she had never abandoned her open attitude nor her side business of Cortesana Honesta; to that question, she constantly replied politics was her first job and her marriage was a rewarding deal.
The events she called night dances were a perfect instance of her attitude, and a glorious way for those invited to satisfy their independence and drives in a context where all that gave them enjoyment, with obvious dangerous exceptions, was fair.
The night dances occurred four times a year, once a week, immediately after the end of the Carnival. Messalina set them up in a different location every time, known only to the potential or actual guests.
The Dyonisia’s underground level was vast, its air filled with dark, deafening electronic music. Finely furnished with couches and armchairs upholstered in velvet and with floral black frames, the room was faintly illuminated by purple and red lights, the imposing floral decorative pattern replicated on the matte walls as well as on the black glossy floor. The ceiling, instead, was covered by sheets of mirrored glass that reflected all that was happening below. A large, silver bar counter was erected to the southeast side, serving free drinks and fine wines that were brought around tirelessly by the waiters wearing white and gold full-face masks.
The most interesting part of that level, however, was the gigantic tree planted towards the north side of the room, an immense oak genetically modified to exhibit bioluminescent foliage. Its leaves emitted white, purple and cyan light, radiating upon the large couch placed at its base.
Messalina was sitting at its centre, her alabaster figure clothed in a transparent silk dress covered in golden embroidered curlicues, the oversized gold metal shoulders and hanging sleeves paired with a flowing double-slit skirt and a plunging neckline. A horizontal black stripe was painted upon her blue retinal augmentations, and her blond hair, adorned with a flower crown, was styled in a side-parted cascade of messy locks. She wore earrings, necklaces and bracelets made of gold, a ring on each finger, the nails on her hands and bare feet painted in black nail polish.
The room was crowded with people, some of them dancing, all of them indulging themselves in amusement and pleasure. Scandalo was invited and expected to make an appearance among the attendees that night, but unbeknownst to Messalina, someone else showed up on his behalf.
With a different half-face mask, black with lit red curlicues like those worn by the Orchidea’s amanti, his hair exceptionally collected in a messy bun, Fulvio sat at the counter and looked around, his transmitter in his right ear. He didn’t wear any shirt under his dark red velvet blazer; his sculpted torso was bare, his tattoos fully visible above the tight black trousers matched with a pair of buckled winklepicker shoes.
“You should be here with me, dulcina. Can you guess who I just saw? Felice Fregola, the adult chips’ star. He’s a complete stulto and at least three ladies declined his advances,” he said to Donatella, his voice raised enough to be heard through his transmitter. The mentioned actor, standing before a near couch, ended up insulted by a woman who got up infuriated and pushed him while yelling. “Scratch that, now they’re four. Does he really think that pulling out his dick in front of people’s faces is the right approach?”
“And that’s why you shouldn’t believe everything you see in those chips,” Donatella said after a sigh. Fulvio giggled, and he continued laughing when he heard Cesco’s chuckle on the other end. “I’m talking to you, Cesco.”
“Fuck you,” Cesco retorted in a disgruntled tone.
“Focus on the mission, Fulvio,” Donatella said afterwards, “Scandalo said that Aurelio Marcotti is in the room. I suppose Messalina doesn’t know what a piece of shit he is.”
“Well, I can’t see him around and some of the guests are masked,” Fulvio replied, “She probably doesn’t know he’s a bastard, but at least I hope she knows where he is in this moment. I should ask her.”
“Don’t get too distracted, though,” Donatella warned him.
Fulvio grabbed a glass of wine from a tray held by a passing waiter and addressed the latter with a fascinating wink. He couldn’t see his face, but he saw the waiter observing him for some seconds before walking away. “Don’t worry, dulcina,” Fulvio affirmed after a sip, “Sadly, I don’t have much time to get distracted. Did you take care of Marcotti’s bodyguards?”
“Of course I did, I’m a professional.”
“No doubt about it,” Fulvio said, “Cesco?”
“I took care of their car,” the boy replied, “I rebooted the starting interface. No biometric sign is registered anymore, so the car won’t start if Marcotti tries to escape. I also had fun with the internal AI. In case he tries to call the emergency line through a voice command, the AI will redirect his call to Scandalo.”
“That arsehole would prank him by pretending to be a Signore Noctis,” Fulvio chuckled, “I love Nando so much. I should visit him one of these days. Did I ever tell you I crashed a night dance with him? It was a week before my augmentation surgery. I had to take him home by carrying him on my back, luckily he wasn’t a cyborg either back then. His hangover lasted at least two days, or three now that I think abou—”
“Fulvio,” Donatella scolded him.
“Alright, alright,” Fulvio sighed, putting the half-emptied glass on the counter. “It’s time to work.”
Messalina was surrounded by a large crowd, people who accosted her to offer her wine, cigarettes, drugs and the warmth of their bodies, praising her and begging her to grant them her consideration. She wasn’t keen to please them all, which was why only a young man had the honour to gain her interest and experience her passionate attentions.
Fulvio didn’t even want to imagine how much hatred that lucky man was getting; in fact, he’d be in the spotlight as well the moment he reached that couch to ask her about Marcotti. He had to approach furtively and to do so he needed to observe the area from a nearer, well-located spot.
He blended in with ease, cut a path through the crowd, and finally reached a vacant fainting couch he immediately took after grabbing a cigarette and a lighter from his jacket’s inside pocket. He laid down, an elbow resting on the raised end of the couch, a leg fully extended and the other bent with his foot on the seat and his knee lifted.
As he lit his cigarette, Fulvio laid his eyes on the bodyguards standing behind Messalina, two shirtless men with mechanical torsos, robotic skeletal jaws and red retinal augmentations. They didn’t possess any guns, although their weapons were probably contained inside their muscular cybernetic arms. Their presence would make any attempt to approach her silently from behind completely unfeasible, hence he gave up the idea.
“I might have something to help,” he suddenly heard, “but first, I’m curious to know why you’re here.”
The fingers holding his cigarette halted right in front of his lips. He slowly moved them away and raised his eyes to see someone observing him from above, a hooded figure with his arms folded on the curved backrest, a man whose pale chest was visible from the halfway unbuttoned black shirt he wore under a leather hooded jacket.
His face was hidden by a square-jawed, mouthless full-face mask painted black and encircled by glowing cyan floral curlicues. Spirited light-coloured eyes stared at Fulvio through its eyeholes, a familiar sight that made the latter grin surprised. Stubborn, goofy prince, he thought, choking back a chuckle.
“If I had known you were a guest, I would’ve crashed the dances more often in the past,” Fulvio said, “Unless you’re here for me, and this makes me wonder how you knew. I’m not mad at you, I’m just intrigued and impressed. Really impressed, if you ask me.”
Leandro’s eyes sharpened slightly, revealing he was smiling underneath his mask. “You were right, you talk too much,” he said, moving away from the backrest and walking around the couch.
Fulvio attempted to lower his legs to make him room. Leandro sat down quickly and surprised him by grabbing his legs, then placing them over his lap. Fulvio gaped at him and let out a soft laugh while Leandro’s eyes wandered over his body. Fulvio felt the hold on his thigh becoming firmer, and a cunning smirk appeared on his lips. He didn’t care about his unsmoked cigarette and the ash that fell while he held it, since too busy returning that longing stare.
“Stop looking at me that way,” he commented with a wide, mischievous smile, “My trousers are too tight.”
“So are mine, but I agree we shouldn’t take them off here,” Leandro responded. Fulvio gave him a wink and drew on his cigarette, pleased when he saw Leandro’s chest puffing up. “Where’s your usual mask?”
“I’m undercover,” Fulvio replied, “You should be happy about it, I’m not wearing any lipstick.”
“You’re aware you’re pretty recognisable, right?” Leandro asked him, pointing at his tattoos. “You’re basically the same, minus the hood. If anyone here knows you, they’ll identify you with no effort.”
Fulvio smiled again, his eyes thinned in a captivating stare. “I can tell the same about your eyes.”
“There’s nothing unusual about my eyes,” Leandro genuinely countered.
“That’s your opinion,” Fulvio affirmed. Leandro looked down to chuckle as he moved his hand away from Fulvio’s leg.
Fulvio sat up and threw away his cigarette, so he moved closer until they were face to face. He would’ve loved to take off Leandro’s mask, if only that place wasn’t so crowded. Even if the lights were concealing their actual colour, those eyes were strikingly beautiful.
“What’s your mission this time?” Leandro asked, leaning in even closer to speak in a lower tone in his ear. Fulvio could smell his cologne, a classy scent of musk and citrus. It was too similar to his own, so similar they were probably wearing the same fragrance.
“I’m hunting a Proveditore Pacis obsessed with his personal security, except this time. He’s attending this dance,” Fulvio replied in the same way, a more serious tone in his voice. “He extorts sexual favours in exchange for court victories. A student from Ferreocastro rejected him and killed himself after being unjustly convicted. Long story short, his father paid a patrono in Bassoborgo to avenge him and I found out.”
“You can’t find him, so you wanted to ask Dominia Fiorabaldi where he is,” Leandro guessed, and Fulvio nodded affirmatively. “Who’s the man? Perhaps I know him.”
Fulvio looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Aurelio Marcotti,” he revealed, “I’ve been told he prefers younger men, that’s why I’m undercover. I’m irresistible in this attire, don’t you think?”
“You don’t need to ask the host, I can easily identify him,” Leandro said, “and yes, I can confirm you are.”
“It’s a shame you’re wearing a mask and I’m working,” Fulvio remarked, glad he could finally hear him laugh quietly. “Are you sure you want to help me? It’s pretty obvious I’m going to assassinate him. Besides, I should be the one asking you what you’re doing here if you’re not a guest.”
“I’m absolutely sure,” Leandro revealed, “A few years ago, I tried to hold him accountable for harassing a friend of mine. He got away with it.”
Fulvio pulled himself away and looked him straight in the eyes. “You’re a prince,” he said afterwards, close to his ear once again. “How could he possibly get away with it when you tried to frame him?”
Leandro stayed silent for a bit, a tense, enraged silence that ended when he touched Fulvio’s cheek, his fingers slipping on his neck in a caressing touch as he got past his hoop earring and grabbed his nape. Fulvio let him, a pleasant yet intense shiver trailed down his spine. Leandro drew Fulvio close before finally speaking again.
“Politics and corruption are more powerful than any person in this country, and justice means nothing to them,” he confessed, “I learnt real justice lies in the shadows. Justice is a shadow, and I want to help him. I’m here to get answers, and I’m here for you.”
Fulvio closed his eyes, another shiver, more powerful than the previous one, shaking him in a combination of pride and pleasure. Terra, my trousers are surely too tight, he thought, or at least he believed thinking and not saying out loud; however, he clearly heard Leandro’s snicker after that consideration. I said it, he judged amused. “So be it,” he then declared, “Let’s help each other.”
©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.