Umbra (Short Story)

Art by Syd “Vetyr” Mills

Fulvio Donati was only eleven when he learnt how to pickpocket, thirteen when he learnt how to fight, fifteen when he killed someone for the first time, and seventeen when he learnt how to make love. At the age of twenty‑four, he was an expert in all these arts.

It was the year 2082 in the Princedom of Florydia, the most powerful land in Taenand, and the homonym city of Florydia was Fulvio’s playground. When he wasn’t stealing passers-by’s possessions in the streets, Fulvio was investigating on his designated targets and building valuable alliances. When he wasn’t saving innocents from his ruthless fellow criminals or assassinating cruel men of power, Fulvio was giving free rein to his talent on the bedsheets.

That night, Fulvio was surprisingly lonely; his attention was drawn by a familiar shout coming from the other side of his bedroom’s door, after a long series of knocks.

“It’s midnight, stulto,” he heard, most of the emphasis on that insult pronounced by a feminine voice. “Let us in.”

Fulvio groaned and rolled on the satin sheets of the bed placed against the north wall in his room. Illuminated by purple perimetral lights, that space was narrow and immersed in a blend of red, magenta and acid green colours emitted by the neon and holographic decorations on the walls and by the luminous stripes bordering each piece of furniture.

Apart from the large wardrobe and a dressing table packed with cosmetic products, a shelf was placed behind the low headboard and filled with useful equipment, as Fulvio described it. Right above a pair of electronic handcuffs and a riding crop, on the wall a bidimensional holographic owl was sided by the silhouettes of green tendrils. Fulvio had always loved owls so much he placed a decorative depiction of that bird anywhere he could.

None of those who entered that room ever noticed that detail, though, since it was hard for Fulvio’s lovers to focus on something that wasn’t him. Messalina Fiorabaldi, a noblewoman renowned for her numerous affairs and one of Fulvio’s most precious informers, even dared to deem him the most attractive man in Florydia. That flattery was fairly honest.

A willowy, olive-skinned work of art, a statue carved out of stone, Fulvio Donati had realised soon in life how to use his attractiveness to his own benefit.

His nipples were both pierced, his body heavily tattooed, many of those tattoos made while drunk so he didn’t remember who made them for him and what the meaning was behind them; however, he never cared.

His sculpted cheekbones and his chiselled jawline were paired with a slightly aquiline nose, adorned by a silver ring on a nostril. His dark brown eyebrows were naturally thin, sharp and so expressive he just needed to raise one to make everyone fall at his feet. Long to his shoulders, his hair was vaporous and wavy, always worn loose and beautified by the medium hoop earrings he often sported on his lobes.

His brown eyes, finally, were abysses of mystery and secrecy, pain and awareness, torment and passion. They were seductive on their own, but Fulvio loved to put on some black eyeshadow on a daily basis, a peculiarity that made him irresistible to many of those who had the pleasure or the misfortune to cross his path.

Donatella Cantorino was one of the few who knew him well, and the only one who understood his demands in romantic matters.

If it were for Fulvio, he would’ve ended up in a proper relationship with each of his lovers, falling in love with all of them. Sadly, the vast majority of people in Florydia wasn’t willing to share a romantic bond with more than one person, and Fulvio, always straightforward about his preference, wasn’t willing to renounce his openness and freedom to accommodate the needs of someone who didn’t respect his.

Nonetheless, despite their intimacy, Donatella refused to define herself one of his lovers. She was his most reliable friend, instead, the closest he ever had. She was also the one who advised him to never reveal his secret identity, a wise reminder a blabber like him certainly needed.

He turned towards the shelf behind him to grab a pack of cigarettes, pick one and bring it to his lips. Getting no response, Donatella unceremoniously entered the room accompanied by a teenaged boy; her brother Francesco, eighteen years old, who followed her around like a quiet shadow. “Why are you always naked?” she asked Fulvio after a heavy snort.

Fulvio lit his cigarette and limited himself to grab the sheet in order to cover his member. “And why are you in such a big hurry, dulcina?” he asked in return with a cunning smirk, moving the cigarette away from his lips after having blown a cloud of smoke. The nails on his fingers were painted in black nail polish, the same worn by Donatella. In fact, she had painted both their nails just the day before.

She was twenty-three, a stunning young woman with big blond hair, a giant tangle of thin permed curls combed on a side and draping on her left shoulder, the right side of her head shaved.

Small in height like many Florese women, Donatella fitted the beauty standards of Florydia, quite different from those in the oppressed continent of Empiria; her hourglass figure exalted her generous curves, her wide hips highlighted by the high-waist black trousers she wore along with a large belt and a shiny golden shirt, a studded leather gilet full of small chains and floral embroidery worn above it.

Her skin was pearl-white, her small, pretty round face and her sharp teal eyes painted in a garish, multi‑coloured makeup.

Francesco, shortened to Cesco, shared part of her features though he was a tall slender boy displaying the most widespread hairstyle in Taenand, backcombed into a puffy tangle of wavy locks on the shorter top and straight and longer on his nape.

Cesco showed up mostly dressed in black, his large trouser legs tucked into his comfortable high top white sneakers. Beneath his large gilet full of patches, Cesco wore a flower-patterned cyan shirt and two thin silver necklaces.

While Donatella was impetuous and blunt, Cesco was a shy boy of few words, almost too compliant. If it wasn’t for their physical resemblance, they wouldn’t even look like siblings.

“I found out who was behind those human traffickers we stopped a week ago,” Donatella said, her hands covered by the studded fingerless gloves on her hips. “Guess who?”

Fulvio grabbed an ashtray from the shelf and put it on his lap. “Argenti?” he asked, and he smiled bitterly when Donatella nodded. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he remarked, a quick line of smoke coming from his lips in a hissing whiffle.

“More precisely, Argenti’s men were the ones who put the protecti on drugs and sent them to Jabreten by sea. We still don’t know who lured them,” intervened Cesco, his glance lowered in embarrassment. Every time he spoke, his voice trembled like he was about to say something that would put his life in danger. Fulvio had never been timid or ashamed a single moment in his life, so he couldn’t understand his struggle; nonetheless, he never judged him for that.

“At least, the Golden Peacocks seem to work alone now,” said Donatella, “A little bird told me they haven’t heard from that Holtese pirate in weeks.”

“That Holtese pirate was a friend of Argenti as well,” remembered Fulvio, raising his knees to bend forward and rest his forearms. “I hope he’s dead and rotting on the ocean’s floor. Does Matrona Aspasia know about this?”

“She’s my little bird,” revealed Donatella, “and our patrona for tonight’s job, apparently. You know her better than I do. Touch the outcasts or her protecti, and she’ll do anything in her power to take your life.”

Fulvio chuckled. “What’s the reward this time?”

Donatella crossed her arms on her chest and smirked. “Since when do you ask for payment from Matrona Aspasia?”

“Since she told me I had to pack up and leave for good,” Fulvio replied, pressing the cigarette butt on the ashtray. “I’m kidding, I’d do anything for her.”

“She said you can choose your prize,” she told unexpectedly, “I already received mine when I went to talk to her.”

“And you didn’t invite me?” Fulvio giggled. His smile was seductive as anything concerning him, and Donatella looked away to not make her blushing cheeks too obvious. Fulvio noticed that, though. Considering the discomfited way Cesco cleared his throat, he noticed that too.

“Why should I?” she countered afterwards, “In any case, I suppose Umbra can’t wait to get back in action. Shall we go?”

“Not so fast,” he said then, “Jokes aside, what did you ask for?”

“It’s none of your business, stulto,” replied Donatella in a bored tone, right before turning on her heels and leaving the room. Cesco started chuckling at Fulvio’s reaction, since he goggled and opened his arms in confusion when he heard that evasive answer.

******

The city of Florydia was one of the most picturesque in Taenand, and certainly the most beautiful in the continent of Hydisar. A triumph of architectural masterpieces, modern skyscrapers covered in holograms, a blend between stubborn nature and invasive technology.

Built on water and connected to the land and its flourishing woods through a colossal highway bridge, Florydia was arranged on multiple levels, countless smaller bridges linked to the city roads and towering the artificial canals containing the water of the large bay inside which Florydia was erected, bathed by the Empirian Red Ocean.

Each bridge overlooked a piling of skyscrapers with their blinding and polychromatic volumetric projections, depicting holographic advertising and references to Florese popular culture. People in Florydia would never know what it meant for Empirian citizens to roam free at night in their cities’ streets, while hearing music instead of propagandistic speeches; for an inhabitant of Empiria, that city was the epitome of happiness and freedom.

People like Fulvio, however, knew that Florydia wasn’t actually free. Consumerism and corruption lurked in every artery of that colourful wonderland, and the humblest individuals were victims of corporate vultures, mobsters, vicious celebrities and ruthless aristocrats. In spite of its artistic value, its powerful armed forces, its fair monarchy, and its inclusive and virtuous naturalistic religion, Florydia was in fact rotting on the inside.

The wastes of that apparently perfect society needed someone who looked after them, a protector and avenger trained to seek justice for those who had no voice and no weapons to defend themselves. Once upon a time that role belonged to Usignolo, a mysterious masked woman who acted in the shadows to save her peers from any kind of injustice. Retired in old age to become a much-loved brothel owner, Usignolo, now known as Matrona Aspasia, found her rightful heir in an orphaned boy she personally trained to succeed her.

Umbra, that was his name, was the hidden identity of Fulvio Donati; a masked vigilante, defender of outcasts, but also a cold-blooded thief and assassin.

When Fulvio became Umbra, his appearance was mostly hidden by the large hood of a black cropped jacket, adorned by glowing blue embroidered flowers. The upper half of his gorgeous face, instead, was partially covered by a charming blue mask, luminous and blue and richly decorated with intricate black curlicues. His thin lips, beautiful and tempting, painted in black lipstick.

Umbra carried a considerable arsenal of weapons, but most of it was hidden inside him. Few people knew that Fulvio Donati was a cyborg; those who knew never dared to ask him when and where he got his augmentations, although the answer to that question was more obvious than it could seem.

A city like Florydia was hard to explore in a short time, and not even those who knew it by heart could hope to cross any distance like Fulvio did. There was a reason for the long vents present at the sides of his jacket’s back and for the cuts present in the loose black shirt he wore almost fully unbuttoned when he watched over Florydia; in fact, he had the extraordinary ability to fly.

Manufactured in Cybernetica and exclusively supplied to the royal troops of Prince Bastiano, the Icarus wings were perhaps the most impressive augmentations Fulvio possessed. Made of extremely lightweight polymers, black and blue like his clothes and equipment, Fulvio’s wings were thin and elongated, resembling those of a bird; an owl, he often stated proudly. While spread they appeared gigantic, yet their aerodynamic shape and their extreme foldability allowed them to disappear in his back when he wasn’t using them. He couldn’t properly fly, actually, but at least he was capable of gliding from a rooftop to another, from a higher bridge to a lower one, and to use the winds to cover longer distances.

Following Donatella’s directives, Fulvio flew towards the lowest bridge overlooking Canale Imperio, the major waterway in Florydia. On that exact bridge Donatella and Cesco were riding their electromagnetic motorcycles, a pair of sharp-bodied supersport bikes painted in white, covered in decorative lights and completed by a polymeric windshield. The supplementary flaming thrusters were powered by a Florese-made liquefied self‑regenerating gas, recently also exported to Empiria by the bravest traffickers.

Donatella’s bike was named Melusina, and its decorative lights were cyan-coloured like its holographic dashboard. Anguana was Cesco’s bike, and its lights, originally cyan like those of Melusina, were replaced by Cesco himself with bright violet ones.

“Did you know there’s a parade?” Fulvio asked through the transmitter placed in his right ear, the unmistakable holographic interface projected above his auricle.

“What are you talking about?” Donatella exclaimed, “The Carnival hasn’t started yet. Oh, wait…”

“Vindemius Equinox,” intervened Cesco from his own transmitter, turning for a moment at Donatella while riding at her left. He was wearing a pair of rectangular mirror shades, similar to those Donatella put on for the occasion. “Good job, Dona.”

“You should stop hanging out with Fulvio,” Donatella remarked, “You’re starting to become a pain in the arse like him.”

When he heard that comment and Cesco’s chuckle, Fulvio laughed softly. “He’s learning from the best,” he claimed right before landing on the rooftop of an old building, shorter than the skyscrapers filling Florydia’s commercial district.

******

Vindemius Equinox was one of the main festivities in Florydia, for which a Harvest festival officiated by the Ostara, the priests living in the forest and priesthood of the state religion, was planned every year since the dawn of time. It was the only festival that the head of the cult, known as the Firstborn, didn’t attend. Vindemius Equinox also celebrated the rise of the moon over the sun, feminine over masculine, and only a woman could represent that allegory.

The main role was given to the Ostara’s highest priestess, at that time the astoundingly beautiful Morena; that year, Morena took the symbolism of bringing the fruit of the Harvest to another level, since she appeared holding a new-born child in her arms. A child of the Equinox, a child of the Firstborn, and perhaps a future priest who would’ve join the Ostara starting from the age of eighteen.

For unknown reasons, the Firstborn’s children were all male at birth, though Morena was mother to many children and lover to many Ostara. Their freedom of love was so similar to that of Fulvio he often considered that peculiarity his most spiritual trait.

From his position on the city rooftops, Fulvio saw a line of motorised boats covered in red, orange and yellow flowers filling the waters of Canale Imperio.

Each boat was crowded by many gorgeous Ostara, priests of any gender with delicate features and long hair, dressed in white tunics and wearing flower crowns.

They were handing apples to the citizens gathered on the wharves siding both sides of the canal, a symbol of the Harvest and of nature’s renewal. In the main boat, Morena was sitting on a throne covered in flowers and tendrils, wearing a meticulously embroidered long dress.

It was orange and red, the colours of the festivity and of the mask covering the upper half of her small chiselled face, completed by a pair of tapered deer horns embellished by flowery adornments. Those colours exalted the shininess of her tawny skin and her long and wavy black hair. She was breastfeeding her child, a peaceful, soft smile on her face while the celebration continued.

Fulvio didn’t spend too much time observing that magnificent scenery. According to the information Donatella obtained from Matrona Aspasia, her former protecta Alessia Adalberti performed her new job of Cortesana Honesta in a beautiful apartment located at the eighth floor of a building overlooking Canale Imperio, right in front of the main bridge crossing it, Ponte Marchesio.

Apparently, Alessia had started using her influential position to act as a hitman, killing powerful figures against payment by high society clients. Nothing new, since countless Cortesane offered that service. Alessia’s major clients, however, were the most despicable men of power in Florydia. Her next target was going to be Leandro Aronne dei Monvalire, twenty-nine, Prince Bastiano’s youngest son.

Leandro was a known social activist, a clichéd rebellious royal according to his detractors and a saviour and symbol of justice according to the amanti, Florydia’s sex workers who came from the lowest social background like Matrona Aspasia’s protecti.

Biased by the bigoted mentality of Gaius Herrin, older son of Messalina Fiorabaldi and the Empirian baron Claudius Herrin, Florese high society stood up against the fair regulations for prostitution Prince Bastiano was planning to implement and was trying fervidly to force the closure of brothels, making the amanti’s work illegal in the process.

Leandro had personally taken part in all the protests planned in the previous months and publicly spoke in favour of the amanti, supporting his father’s initial decision and campaigning against that unwanted Empirian influence, opposed to the welcoming Florese religion and morality.

For that reason, Alessia had been paid handsomely to lure him to a fake sit-down and silence him forever.

“When’s the encounter?” Fulvio asked Donatella through his transmitter.

“In twenty minutes,” Donatella replied, “Without the parade you could’ve stopped Prince Leandro before he reached Alessia’s house, but I suppose it’s an impossible task now. Almost certainly, he’s already there.”

“Now you tell me,” Fulvio complained after a sigh.

Donatella stayed silent for some seconds. “I told you when we left the house,” she countered, “Terra, you’re impossible.”

“Oh,” Fulvio muttered, “Never mind, we’re still in time. Is there something I need to know about Alessia’s house? Does she have an alarm system?”

“She had one,” intervened Cesco, “After we met Matrona Aspasia, I went over to your current position and checked it. It was quite easy to violate. I hope I did everything right. I…I should’ve done everything right, I mean, it was deactivated.”

“Relax,” Fulvio chuckled, “I’m sure you did a great job. I’ll sneak in. If you don’t hear from me in two hours…”

“We’ll come to save your arse, we know,” Donatella snorted.

“Not that it’ll be necessary,” concluded Fulvio, slowly standing up. “Catch you later. I’ll make it quick.”

******

When Fulvio started his training with Matrona Aspasia, one of the first things she taught him was embracing the darkness and using it to his advantage. In order to hide in the shadows, you have to become one, she told him when he was just a boy. Once he learnt how to master the shadows, he became in fact a shadow. Umbra, the name he chose for his nightly identity.

The lit decorations on his clothes and mask could be shut down on command through a neuroconnector attached to his nape, and that’s exactly what he did when he arrived in the vicinity of Alessia’s house. The nearest buildings were full of snipers, who all perished by the hand of a silent and unknown shadow who took their lives through the sharp blades hidden in his arms. The main peculiarity of Fulvio’s augmentations resided in the fact they didn’t replace his body parts with shiny cybernetic appendages, as was common for countless cyborgs like Argenti and his showy iron fists.

The clandestine doctor who installed Fulvio’s, Gherardino Farnesi, was known for his invisible augmentations covered by large portions of an organic lab-made skin coating, manufactured by his Cybernanian supplier on the basis of his patients’ tissue samples. An extremely expensive service, yet a cost Matrona Aspasia could easily afford.

One of the snipers noticed Fulvio before he could kill him and tried in vain to hit him with his rifle. Fulvio quickly avoided that hit by bending down and drawing the weapon hidden in his left arm, a peculiar augmentation coming out from his forearm that he called stiletto for its thin yet resistant long blade. It was shaped like a smooth hilt that he immediately grabbed to pierce his enemy’s upper belly. Pointed upwards, the blade plunged into the ill-fated man’s heart in a fatal blow.

After that last kill Fulvio took a run to jump, an impressive leap that brought him on a beautiful marble balcony filled with luxuriant plants and flowering vines. He snuck into the apartment by crossing the open glass door, putting the soles of his leather dress boots on the polished black-and-white chequered floor.

Alessia’s house was a perfect example of the elegant Florese houses located near Canale Imperio, as well as of the luxury granted by a Cortesana Honesta’s elevated income. An incredibly large apartment, decorated with several potted palms and supplied with classic furniture, made of scrupulously carved wood painted in black and tufted seats upholstered with floral-patterned velvet, scarlet red and emerald green. The trey ceiling of the room Fulvio entered was painted in bright white, like the decorative columns that rose from their black cubic bases. The entire area was dimly illuminated by the warm perimetral lights of the adjoining room, accessible through the large opening topped by a rounded arch.

He decided to move with stealthy steps towards that direction, following the voices speaking in that moment.

“I have to disappoint you, Dominia Alessia. I’m not mad at you, and I don’t feel rage in your regards as you might suppose. I feel pity, instead. I don’t blame you for what you’re doing, but I won’t guarantee your fellow amanti’s forgiveness.”

Cloaked in darkness, Fulvio peeked from the left edge of the entrance. In a room furnished in a similar way to the previous, two brawny cyborgs, dressed in magenta floral shirts and with a pair of cybernetic arms each, were holding a man hostage by pointing their plasma guns at his head. The prisoner was Prince Leandro, indeed a gorgeous young man.

A dark brown sparse beard, growing under his protruding straight nose, surrounded his full rose lips while emphasising the pink undertone of his pale skin. His hair was short, straight but messy in an attractive way, dark brown like the thick eyebrows topping his big and passionate round eyes coloured of an outstanding light blue.

He was clothed in a large-shouldered black jacket worn above a white t-shirt, a pair of high-waist large trousers with two studded white belts and a pair of loafers. A jaunty appearance, consistent with the ardent and bold personality he was notable for.

He was sitting on an armchair in front of Alessia, who was busy loading an injector gun with what presumably was a deadly mix of synthetic drugs. Her hair was a voluminous cascade of blond permed curls, certainly dyed judging from her thick black eyebrows and her olive skin.

Dressed only in an open black silk dressing gown, high-leg lace panties and black stay-ups with a pair of high‑heeled platform shoes, Alessia sighed in annoyance, unconcerned by the glances the cyborgs at Leandro’s sides threw at her partial nudity. She was clearly more irritated by Leandro’s calmness and bravery in front of the imminent death she was about to reserve him.

“The amanti are not my fellows,” she stated, “I outranked them many years ago. You’re not afraid to give your life for them, though. Why are you so passionate about their worthless existence?”

“Do I need a reason to fight for basic rights?” Leandro asked without blinking an eye, “No life is worthless. What about you, instead? Why are you supporting a spoiled Empirian brat? I can’t believe you’re willing to betray your peers only for a bunch of floreti. If that’s the case, wealth won’t be enough to buy back your humanity.”

“They’re not my peers,” Alessia retorted, “but do you really think they’re so different from me? They sell their bodies every day for a bunch of floreti. I’m pretty sure they’d tear you to pieces and sell your limbs if they were paid enough, let alone betray you or their own kind.”

“You’re talking nonsense,” said Leandro, “and you know it. Go ahead, come on. Kill me. By taking my life, you’ll only give birth to a martyr and start an uprising.”

Alessia glanced at Leandro and chuckled softly. “The only thing I’ll give birth to will be a scandal. Prince Leandro found dead from a drug overdose in the house of a Cortesana. No one will pay attention to the amanti anymore when this news is reported.”

“How can you be so sure they’ll believe you? My father will start an investigation, he knows me well. He knows I’d never see a Cortesana.”

“Nor a female amante, from what I’ve observed,” Alessia commented, raising an eyebrow. “It’s a shame, actually. For my taste, you’re the most interesting man who’s ever come to this house.”

Alessia nodded to give a quick sign to her men. The one at Leandro’s right grabbed him by the hair to raise his head, in order to expose his jugular vein. Leandro didn’t fight; he was really willing to die for his own convictions, apparently. Before Alessia could carry out her plan and inject him with the fatal dose, however, both cyborg’s necks were pierced from side to side by two curved blades coming from their attacker’s forearms.

Leandro startled in the armchair, as shocked as Alessia who instead threw away the injector gun and quickly grabbed the plasma gun lying on the black wooden table immediately at her right.

Still choking, shaking and vomiting blood, the dying men dropped on the floor in unison right before Fulvio protected himself and Leandro with an unpredictable shield. Icarus wings weren’t mere flight equipment, since it wasn’t rare for him to use them as a protection in dangerous occasions. Plasma shots were an effective weapon against cyborgs, since they were capable of corroding and melting almost all of Taenand’s metals; Fulvio’s wings, however, were of Cybernanian origin.

Little did he know that Alessia had more tricks up her sleeves. In fact, when his wings folded to vanish inside his back and he climbed upon the armchair’s backrest to jump in her direction, Alessia welcomed him with a frontal blade drawn from her wrist. Taken by surprise, Fulvio retracted his curved blades and drew his stiletto augmentation to deviate her attack.

Alessia had the promptness to shoot again in his direction, and Fulvio quickly protected himself with a single wing before landing on the floor with a roll. He turned as fast as he could, his wing disappearing again.

“Matrona Aspasia sends her regards, beautiful Alessia,” he said after throwing himself in her direction, holding another stiletto that came out from his left forearm. He tried to stab her with a double attack, that Alessia avoided like she avoided his following strikes. He let go the right hilt and let it turn so he could hold the weapon with a reverse grip. “Are you proud of what you’ve become since you left her?” he added, finally hitting her nose with his elbow. He let go the other hilt to grab her wrist, finally managing to disarm her, then he bent her arm behind her back to point the opposite stiletto at her throat.

He immediately let her go and moved away when he noticed that something was about to pierce his chest; in fact, a line of sharp spikes came out from Alessia’s backbone, ripping her dressing gown. Before he could realise what was happening, Alessia turned to attack him with a violent shoulder hit. Fulvio ended up on the ground, flat on his back.

“Incredibly proud,” she replied, blades coming out from both her wrists. With the fury of a beast, she attempted to kill him, but Fulvio was fast, too fast to let anyone take his life in such a silly way.

As quickly as he could, he pulled from his shoulder holster a semiautomatic gun loaded with armour-piercing bullets. He shot twice, hitting Alessia on the forehead. Luckily, it seemed that part of her body wasn’t augmented.

When a disgusting spurt of blood and brain matter gushed from the back of Alessia’s head and she staggered backwards to collapse on the floor, Fulvio lowered the gun and got up on his knees. I should quit smoking, he thought, almost gasping for breath.

“Who the fuck are you?” he suddenly heard, a terrified voice coming from behind Alessia’s corpse.

Fulvio almost forgot about Leandro, and he smiled when he saw him squirming and kicking on the armchair, his blue eyes wide open in horror.

“What a princely way to talk,” Fulvio commented before standing up. He walked over Alessia’s dead body and towards Leandro, who squeezing the armrests stared at him while panting terrified. He seemed to calm down a bit when Fulvio introduced himself with a bow. “My name is Umbra, Your Majesty, and you owe me your life.”

“W-what?” Leandro stuttered. He kept staring at Fulvio, who lifted up his eyes to return his gaze. Suddenly, Leandro stopped shaking and observed him astonished. He was speechless, open-mouthed. The fear in his eyes got instantly soothed by that stranger’s charm. In Fulvio’s eyes, Leandro appeared almost too awkward to be a prince.

Fulvio straightened up and observed him from above. “Does someone know you’re here?”

Leandro shook his head. “Not to my knowledge.”

“Do you have a vehicle out there?”

Leandro shook his head again. He didn’t blink once while looking at Fulvio. “No, I don’t.”

Fulvio smirked again. That time, Leandro returned his soft smile. “Good to know,” he said, “I just have one more question before we go.”

Leandro appeared puzzled and shocked at the same time, yet he nodded. “Ask away.”

“May I stop calling you Your Majesty? It sounds ridiculous.”

Leandro started laughing, and Fulvio chuckled when he saw him lower his head to bring a hand on his eyes. “It really does,” he replied, lifting up his eyes again to offer him a radiant smile. “Call me Leandro.”

******

Leandro was sceptical about the capacity of Fulvio’s wings to hold the weight of both; however, once he laboriously reached the rooftop of that building in his company, he stopped blathering since Fulvio held him in a tight embrace and jumped.

They flew over Canale Imperio, over Ponte Marchesio, over the crowd of people and the line of Ostara boats still parading for the Vindemius Equinox festival. A quiet smile appeared on Fulvio’s lips when he noted Leandro’s amazed face, a childlike astonishment he would’ve never expected from a royal personage. That goofy prince was a really amusing company, no doubt about it.

They finally landed on the top of a building, the one from which Fulvio had observed the festival before starting his mission; once there, he moved away from Leandro and activated his clothes’ decorative lights along with the transmitter that had started vibrating in his ear.

“I did it,” he answered when he heard Donatella’s voice from the other end. “Sorry for the late response, I was flying with a prince.”

“Did you already hit on him?”

Fulvio huffed. “Who do you think I am? You should know I’m a respectful servant.”

“Don’t get me started about who I think you are,” Donatella taunted him, “We’re headed to Bassoborgo. Do you think you can take Prince Leandro to Ponte Crepuscolo in fifteen minutes?”

“Ten will be enough,” Fulvio replied, “See you later, dulcina.”

When Fulvio turned to look at the prince, the latter moved his lips like he was about to comment, but he just brought a fist to his lips and moved it away immediately, chuckling surprised.

“I can’t believe you’re the same person who was facing Alessia before I intervened,” said Fulvio, “you sounded more…” he stated, moving a hand theatrically as he was trying to find the right words.

Leandro thinned his eyes, a witty smirk on his lips. “More…?”

“I don’t know. Fascinating, perhaps?” Fulvio teased him with a sneering grin.

Leandro didn’t take offense; actually, he shook his head with a big smile on his face. “Thank you, Umbra,” he said afterwards, his smile softened by gratitude and his eyes filled with admiration.

Fulvio gasped, a reaction that Leandro observed with a puzzled look on his face. “You’re finally thanking me,” he told him, “What are you thanking me for? For having made a slaughter in order to save your life or for this nice flight?”

“For saving my life and for this nice flight. I hope it’s not over yet, though.”

“It is,” Fulvio surprised him, “I’ll leave you on this rooftop and go away. You’re alive, that’s what matters the most.”

Leandro stared at him with a concerned look on his face. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Fulvio observed Leandro in a tense silence, until he couldn’t hold his laugh anymore. “Of course, I’m kidding,” he snorted, “You’re in danger now. A friend of mine will take you to the safest place in Florydia, then we’ll never meet again.”

He started walking towards the rooftop’s opposite edge, but Leandro grabbed his arm to let him turn in his direction. “Forget about it,” he said, looking him straight in the eyes. “You can’t expect to appear in my life this way and then disappear like nothing happened.”

“I can,” Fulvio said, “I always do.”

“Not this time,” Leandro returned, “I have too many questions. I need to know why you came to my rescue, who sent you, and I want to see your whole face.”

Fulvio blinked surprised. The awkward prince left room to the daring man again. He couldn’t tell who was the real Leandro between them, nor he could define which one he preferred. Both, perhaps. “Are you asking me on a date?”

Leandro blinked in return. He raised his eyebrows, puffing up his chest.

Before he could speak, Fulvio gifted him with a captivating smile. “I killed three people in front of you.”

“I…” Leandro faltered.

Fulvio smiled again. That prince was indeed unusual. “You can’t ask a shadow on a date,” he said, “My friend will take you to the Orchidea, where Matrona Aspasia will take care of you. Her protecti will take care of Alessia’s murder and make your fingerprints disappear from her house.”

Leandro nodded, a pensive look on his face. Their conversation ended that moment, and when they reached Ponte Crepuscolo and Fulvio jumped on the backseat of Melusina after Leandro got on the backseat of Cesco’s bike, they parted ways without a chance to say goodbye. Fulvio would come to regret that decision forever, he thought. Or maybe, stubborn as he seemed, that prince would’ve found out who the man behind the mask was and obtain an answer to all of his questions before asking him out. At least Fulvio could’ve shown him his face before leaving, but he didn’t.

He followed Donatella’s usual advice, that same Donatella who was observing the sunrise from the tallest bridge in the city, Ponte Regale, the city deserted and finally asleep. Fulvio was still sitting behind her, his hands on her hips, his chin gently placed on her head. He was strangely contemplative, or probably just exhausted.

“Do you want to know what I asked for as a reward?” she said, all of a sudden.

Fulvio lifted up his head and moved his back away to allow her to turn. When he nodded, Donatella opened the zipper of her belt bag. Fulvio couldn’t believe his eyes when she pulled out a mask, similar to his but painted in gold and silver. It was embellished with small golden leaves, surrounding the tapered, catlike shape of its eye holes.

“I can’t believe it,” he said in a whisper. His fingers trembled when she handed him that beautiful mask, a mask he craved for many years.

“It’s Usignolo’s mask,” she said, “but you know already. It’s a bit tiny for you, but I suppose you’d like to have it anyway. Don’t tell Matrona Aspasia, I told her I would’ve given it to you after she passed away.”

Fulvio started shaking. That mask represented his past, his present, his future. It was Usignolo’s legacy, the thing he cared about the most in his life. In that moment, with that mask in his hands, Fulvio felt like Umbra was truly born for the first time, while that child Matrona Aspasia saved, an abused orphan first and a bullied beggar later, was finally at peace.

“How did you convince her?” he asked, his eyes fixed on that beautiful item.

Donatella took a deep breath. “It was easy,” she sighed, “She’s worried about the protests and that Empirian bastard. She’s afraid the Orchidea will get closed soon, and when it happens, well…she’ll probably be killed. Florydia is changing, Fulvio, and it’s changing for the worst. I’m worried too.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” Fulvio asked, looking at her. That last sentence sounded like the premise to a confession, an unwanted one.

“Sometimes I think I should leave with Cesco, maybe move to Namar. Then I think you’ll never leave this city, and you need us as much as this city needs Umbra, so I decided to stay.”

Fulvio sighed in relief, although Donatella’s reflection filled him with guilt. “You can leave, if you want,” he said, “You should, if you feel that’s the right thing to do. You’re correct, I’ll never leave this city.”

Donatella turned her head to look at the sun rising on the waters of all Florese Canali. That city would’ve collapsed into the void, sooner or later, and Fulvio was destined to follow it in its downfall. “We should get back home, before someone sees you,” she said, turning again to stroke his cheek.

Fulvio let her and didn’t stop her when she placed a tender kiss to his lips. She often did, and he always allowed her, but that time it felt like a goodbye even though it really wasn’t. He felt distant from her, and he felt like he was about to lose Matrona Aspasia forever. For the first time in many years, Fulvio felt completely alone again.

“We should, yes,” he said, “However, he hit on me,” he revealed then, accompanying that sentence with a wink and his usual flirty smile.

Donatella burst into a hearty laugh, a sweet sound Fulvio really needed in the sorrow of that moment. “Let’s go, stulto,” she finally said, grabbing her motorcycle’s handlebars. “I really need some sleep.”

©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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