Title: The Phantom Nightingale
Author: Shauna E. Black
Genre: Steampunk Fantasy
Xanthe’s crew might all be kids, but that doesn’t mean he plays it safe. He saved them all once, and now they’ll go anywhere with him. But when news of a potential lost sister comes to light, Xanthe will lead them on their most dangerous mission yet – into the heart of the empire that wants him dead or alive.
Avilene’s plans after graduating from the empire’s most prestigious academy include escaping the overbearing academy director that has dictated the course of her life since childhood. They do not include being kidnapped by a renegade airship captained by the notorious Phantom Nightingale.
When their purposes clash, can Xanthe persuade Avilene to forego her duty to bring him to justice, or will he lose his crew and his freedom in a desperate attempt to heal the scars of his past?
Mucking about in barter towns was not Brayde’s favorite way to spend the afternoon. Rhoma was the worst. Squatting on a meager peninsula at the southeast edge of the Empire, Rhoma trafficked in everything from produce, to metals, to people. The black market was especially good at finding children—the reason Brayde and Xanthe were here.
Brayde’s misgivings weren’t helped by the empty holster at his hip. He’d been obliged to hand over his stinger at the berth gate. Xanthe had relinquished his saber as well, and Brayde missed the comforting shape that usually skewed the tails of Xanthe’s long, black coat.
“Hold it.” Brayde threw out a hand to stop Xanthe from crossing a street.
A long auto driven by a man wearing goggles and a silk scarf streaming in the wind roared past. In its wake surged a bevy of bicycles, pedestrians, and motorcycles spouting black smoke, all jockeying for position.
“We don’t have time to spare.” Xanthe’s voice had a lilting accent and a mellow quality, like silk gliding over harp strings. “That child’s life could be in danger if Janko decides to sell to one of the underground factories instead of us.”
Stepping into the path of a bicycle that was forced to swerve out of their way, Xanthe forged into the melee.
Brayde grumbled but did his best to follow. The child’s life might be in danger, but their entire crew would suffer the consequences if they got caught by the Rhoma guard.
Xanthe wove himself between the bodies of the crowd like an acrobat, a veritable prince striding through the garish slums. All leather flaps and dark angles, he was thin as a whip and tall as a post. A pair of dark, crimson spectacles glinted in the sun when he turned sharply in answer to Brayde’s warning to avoid an overturned cart of potatoes.
As they advanced through the city, Brayde’s senses were assaulted with clashing colors and garish outfits pulsing in the bald sunlight. The smells of human waste mingled unpleasantly with fried food. Music and haggling voices pounded against his eardrums. It was a relief to move at last into a less crowded street.
“There it is.” Brayde had to shout over the cacophony of the hawkers and the hum of a thousand throats. “Ten steps ahead, to the right.”
The pub was located in a ramshackle building with an upper story sagging atop the first, as though pressed on by the thumb of a distracted giant. The official logo proclaiming this a place to drown one’s sorrows hung askance on a crooked board looming over the street, ready to brain an unwary pedestrian. A child shouldn’t be in such an establishment, but Brayde had seen worse.
He followed Xanthe inside, where dodgy walkways wound between wooden panels and beams, and showgirls sat in the laps of grubby patrons. The floorboards groaned under their boots.
“The counter’s to the left,” Brayde said, as he came abreast of Xanthe. “Four paces around a table straight ahead.” He tried to ignore the couple snogging on top of the table.
The bar was a standard variety, with a long counter stained by years of spilled alcohol, and dusty bottles cluttered in rows on a shelf along the far wall.
At their approach, an eager attendant with strands of greasy hair scuttled from a swinging door in the center of the shelves. “Can I help you, young sirs?”
“We’re looking for Janko,” Xanthe said.
“Janko? Never heard of him.”
Brayde placed both hands on the countertop and leaned in so that his leather vest creaked. “We have an appointment.”
The attendant sneered. “Is that so?”
With long, slim fingers, Xanthe deliberately pulled his spectacles off, revealing his eyes. They were blind, a milky white with fragments of color dancing subtly in the depths. Together with his pale skin and deep auburn hair, his appearance hinted at his ethereal origins.
The attendant’s smile fell right off his face. He trembled. “It can’t be! We heard you were shot down over Leyone.”
“Obviously,” Xanthe said, “that rumor was false.”
The man stammered something about returning in a moment and made a hasty retreat.
Brayde put his back to the bar and leaned into it, glaring at any patrons who dared to show interest in his conversation.
“This is a bad idea,” he mumbled to Xanthe.
Xanthe slid his spectacles carefully back into place. “We’ve come this far. We might as well go through with it.”
“It smells like a trap.”
“Of course it does. I wouldn’t have come, otherwise.”
Brayde let out an exasperated breath. “What?”
Xanthe flexed his fingers. “Traps often have live bait.”
His words did nothing to loosen the knot in Brayde’s stomach. If anything, it got tighter. He clenched and unclenched a fist, wishing more than ever it held his stinger.
“Keep your top on, Brayde.” Xanthe’s calm tone was irritating. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah, that’s what you always say.”
The attendant reappeared on their side of the counter. His mouth stuttered into an obsequious smile as he asked them to follow him to a narrow hallway. Xanthe didn’t move like a blind man as he swayed around obstacles, walking with a confident stride Brayde quickly matched.
“Six paces,” Brayde said automatically. “Through a door.”
As they crossed the threshold, the door swung closed behind them. The light dimmed. They were in a large, unfinished chamber with supporting beams stretching two stories up to the roof. It was cluttered with barrels and crates, damaged furniture, and piles of broken glass. The boards on the back wall had gaps, showing glimpses of the alley behind the building. The crisp cold of late autumn and the alley’s stench seeped in to permeate the room. It was as if they’d just been swallowed whole and were now being digested in a monster’s belly.
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If money were no object and there wasn’t a pandemic circling the world, where would you go for a Spring Break vacation and why?
My husband and I had the opportunity to visit the British Isles last summer and absolutely loved it! We both want to go again, but spend more time in each country, as our last trip was a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve always loved castles, medieval history, and the fantasy genre. Coming from the U.S. I don’t get to see a lot of that in my day-to-day.
What’s your favorite thing about Spring and why?
My birthday is in spring, so it’s been a special time for me since I was a child. Beyond that, I love the changes spring heralds with budding greenery and flowers, the cool weather before the dreaded heat of summer, and the promise of possibilities as we plant our vegetable garden and fix up the yard.
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