“Hey, have you ever heard of it?” came the question spoken in Common.
“That story. It’s an old legend. A sea tale. The Tale of the Golden Beast—”
Nico Fabrizzio tightened his conducting gloves. It felt unnatural over his skin. Leather mixed with bits of metal at the very tips of his fingers, running down to the base of his palm.
“I heard it in the ports of Gemini awhile back.” A half-laugh, half-cough. “It’s about this monster that chases after ships, trains, and v-ehicles that carry gold. Disappears the occupants just like that.”
Nico knelt down beside the man who was speaking and placed a hand on his shoulder. The man cocked his head and grinned.
“What, Nico, you scared already?”
“Please, Mister Braginsky,” Nico said quietly. “When you move like that, you tear the skin that I transmuted.”
Braginsky paused, mouth half-open, smile slowly sliding from his face. He stared down at his body, his eyes dimmed, and he lowered his head back down onto his pillow. “Right… can’t move around much like I used too, huh? Transmutationists can only do so much.” A cough. “I can’t complain. I mean, you don’t need to do this. You’ve already given us our conductors. Business deal closed.”
Conductors, Nico thought, were truly awful.
The skin on Braginsky’s torso was stretched, splotchy, thin, and pale compared to the skin on his shoulders. There was a tear on his chest from his earlier movements. It was small, but it was beginning to grow and split the rest of the flesh that had been stretched thin.
“I’m going to transmute some more of your skin.” Nico raised his gloved hands and placed them on the man’s shoulder. The gloves buzzed with warmth and a section of the man’s skin glowed. Carefully, Nico moved his gloves along the man’s body from his shoulder to the wound on his chest. The glowing patch of skin moved along with his hands and filled in the scar. The man grunted with a grimace.
Letting out a sigh, Nico removed his hands. The glow faded and when it extinguished, the wound was sealed with another stretch of thin, pale skin.
Nico recalled the first time he’d seen a body like this.
He was ten then, clinging to his father’s lab coat as he was dragged into that cold, metal room. He had hated the room. He still did. The white walls that were meticulously scrubbed clean, the metal tool table that squeaked along the tiled floors—he hated it all. But what he hated most was the table that sat square and center. There was always a body on that table. Sometimes a man. Sometimes a woman. Sometimes neither.
On that day, his father had pulled him to that table and showed him a man lying there. The man was pallid and breathing shallowly. The paleness of his skin just brought out the deep red that painted his chest. It looked like it’d been carved out with a knife.
“This is Lucille Bracci. He works for the Campana Family from the right side of the city. On the surface, at least. He’s been acting as our Romano Family’s mole, but he was discovered last night.” His father pointed to the ugly wound. “He was caught up in a shootout. The Campanas had a remarkable Projector Conductor on their side.”
The man groaned and eyed Nico through a haze of tears.
“I want you to operate on Mr. Bracci here, Nico. Both on his injuries and on his face. I want you to change it. He can’t go around this city—no, this country—with that face.”
Nico felt his blood run cold. “But…”
“You’re a Transmutationist,” his father had said. “Successful Transmutationists are always in the medical field. And you are better at manipulating vitae extraneously than intraneously. In other words, you are perfect for this kind of thing, Nico.”
“B-But,” Nico had whimpered, “I-I—”
“I’ve shown you the textbooks, haven’t I? Living bodies are filled with soft vitae. Soft vitae particles are anchored within a living being’s cells. It is through breaking apart clusters of vitae particles and bringing them back together that Transmutationist Conductors operate. It’s simple, Nico. You already know the anatomy of a human body, and I’ve had you practice using your conductor on the hard vitae particles in non-living things. It’s the same concept, Nico. Just break apart the soft vitae and bring it back together. That’s all it is.”
“What if I hurt him?” Nico whispered. “What if I mess up?”
“Then I will fix your mistake, and you will try again,” his father stated.
Lucille’s eyes widened more than Nico’s.
Nico swallowed, tears beginning to leak from his eyes. “B-But… I-I’ll hurt him…”
His father had gripped his shoulder tightly then. An inescapable hand. “The best way to learn is through firsthand experience.”
Nodding, Nico clenched his gloved hands and reached outward.
Afterward—after he had rinsed the blood off his conductor and changed out of his stained clothing—he had stood outside and cried. He had sobbed his heart out. Fists clenched, hair messy, face sloppy.
It wasn’t long before his childhood bullies came along. They had been regular neighborhood kids. Kids who had the fortune of being unaware of who Nico truly was. Where the bullying started, Nico didn’t know. Maybe it’d been when they saw him crying at school after one of Nico’s friends got a paper cut.
As always, they approached him with raised chins and crossed arms.
“Well look at this, guys, crybaby Nico is at it again. Crying, crying, crying.” The ringleader of the crew sneered. “So stupid. What are you—a girl? I bet your dad yelled at you again, huh? He’s a doctor, isn’t he? Can’t blame him for yelling. I mean, you’re so useless, crybaby Nico!”
Nico barely had the chance to wipe his tears on his sleeve before he was shoved up against the wall. He smelled garlic on the ringleader’s breath, which made him tear up even more.
“What, you gonna cry some more?” the ringleader sneered. “Cry some more, crybaby Nico.”
A shadow passed over them. They turned their heads and found someone standing at the mouth of the alleyway, shrouded in light. A small figure with ruffled hair the color of wine, with chubby cheeks spotted with freckles.
“You, kid front and center, you named Pietra?” came the voice from the figure.
Pietra released Nico and rolled up his sleeve. “Yeah, that’s me. What of it?” He crossed his arms. “What, Nico, you can’t even fight your own fights?” Pietra stalked forward and studied the figure closely before he laughed. “And you got a girl to help you?”
“Who said anythin’ about fightin’?” The figure shrugged. “I’m just here to tell you that the bicycle you parked round back—the fancy one with your name on in it—just got stolen by some old guy in slacks.”
Pietra’s mouth dropped open and his eyes popped. Letting out a cry of rage and horror, he shoved past the figure and darted out the alleyway. His lackeys followed him a beat after, shouting at Pietra to wait for them.
The girl regarded Nico with a hand on hip before closing the distance between them.
“Th-Thank you….” Nico mumbled, rubbing his arms.
There was silence as she studied him. Finally, she said as she extended her hand, “The name’s Cadence. Cadence Morello. You mighta heard about me from Francis or somethin’.”
Nico took her hand. “You… you know Francis?”
“Yup, I work for the Romano Family. Not stayin’ for long, but…” She leaned against the wall and slid her hands into her pockets. Despite her small size, Nico thought she looked very cool. “Since your father works for the Romanos, he’s under my protection. Which means that you’re under my protection.” She shrugged. “I ain’t much of a fighter, but I can help ya get out of bad sitches. Just give me a holler.”
Nico looked at her uncertainly, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes.
“Ya look like you’re too big for these twin cities,” she said. “Well, that makes both of us.” She clicked her tongue. “Don’t like it here, do ya? The adults say this is a city of opportunity, but it’s more like a cage, ain’t it? Makes sense for us to work together on that.” She extended her pinky. “What do ya say?”
Nico stared at her hand for a long while, but the girl did not lower it. Nico had no choice but to accept. As he reached out his hand, the girl reached forward and looped her pinky around his. She gave it a hard shake and grinned.
A pinky promise made with a girl with a freckled smile. Nico figured that the moment had probably slipped from Cadence’s mind. In her line of business where she dealt with odd people day in and day out, that small meeting had probably been lost to the dozens. But to Nico, in that moment, as he looked up at that extended hand, Cadence was the sun. Forever burned into his mind.
Nico’s childhood spent roaming the streets with Cadence and the Foxman brothers and the Romano children were days Nico remembered fondly. From sneaking into bars, to breaking up fights, to running through the streets like they owned them. They straddled the line between childhood innocence and cruelty.
Nico wondered how the brothers were doing now. Allen and Carl were probably arguing about spending money, and Francis was probably watching them go at it with that calm, unreadable smile of his. Cadence was probably trying to profit off of the fight. Maybe starting a betting ring—
“Nico, snap out of it. We gotta go.”
Nico blinked out of his daze. Braginsky was still lying in front of him on the makeshift bed. Asleep. Sweat beaded the man’s forehead. Nico used a rag to dry it, then rose to a stand. Clive and Rino were standing behind him disgruntled. He had come here with them to deliver the conductors to the Aquarians. No—to heal Clive and Rino, the actual delivery men, if they were injured along the way. That was his purpose.
“Let’s get the hell outta here before we’re caught up anymore in this mess,” Clive said, rubbing his nose with a grimace. “Smells like death here.”
Nico followed the two men out of the room and into the dirty hall.
Bodies lined the halls. Men on gurneys pressed up against one another. Men in casts and slings curled up against walls. Some groaned. Some cried.
Nico felt his eyes sting as he passed them by. The medical Conductors hadn’t gotten to them fast enough, it seemed. Nico looked at them. Was there nothing he could do for them? Nothing at all? What would Cadence do?
“Stay out of it,” Cadence had said. “It ain’t your fight.”
They passed by a young medical Conductor tending to a young man whose hair was as red as the bandages wrapped around his head and arms. As red as wine.
“You guys head back first,” Nico found himself saying as his feet stopped moving beneath him.
Clive paused, turned. “What are you—”
“Look, Fabrizzio,” Rino sighed. “You’re an empathetic guy. I get it.” He jerked his head toward the ones on the floor. “But the Aquarians got themselves into this mess with Capricorn. No use dragging ourselves into it.”
“Plus,” Clive added under his breath as he formed a mock gun with his hand, “we’re the ones fueling this mess. It’s a bit hypocritical to try and throw them a hand, ain’t it?”
Even still… the men here were in an inescapable situation just as he had been. And now… wasn’t he technically free?
“I’ll come later. If my dad or Ricardo have problems, just tell them that I chose to do this. To strengthen our relations with our business associates.” Nico turned away before they could say anything else and knelt down next to the medical Conductor he had seen earlier. “It’s on me.”
The medical Conductor looked up at him in surprise. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Clive and Rino shrug before turning to leave.
“I’ve got this,” Nico told the medical Conductor. “You help some of the others.”
She regarded him for a moment before she nodded and rushed down the hall to tend to another soldier. Nico placed his conductor over the adolescent’s shoulder and began his work. When he finished with the adolescent, he continued making his way through the halls, going patient to patient until he finally arrived back in Braginsky’s room. He hesitated at the doorway and peered in. Braginsky was still lying asleep. Hesitantly, Nico entered
As Nico approached, Braginsky cracked open an eye and stared at him for a long while. Then, he grinned. “What, you wanna hear my story, after all?”
Nico felt a smile tug at his lips as he pulled up a chair next to the man’s bedside. “Yeah, tell me, Braginsky.”