Nyx Cormorant had been out all night. Her hair was matted, her tunic filthy and her lip split, but as she gambolled down the broad, gaslit avenues of Marblesea, the triumph in her gait was unmistakable. She flicked her arcboard open and shut as she jubilantly if tunelessly – whistled The Battle Hymn of the Sankaritar. The fierce summer sun had just cast its first rays of electric tangerine out over the ocean, so no one was about to hear the verboten tune – not that it would have stopped her.
Nyx had just won her third race of the night. It was a personal best. Bulls from all across the Empire were in town for the festival and it seemed every last one of them was preening manfully at the thought of levying a successful bid for one of the famed Brides of Atlantis. It had been easy to bait races all night.
First, there had been the hapless cadet on a glorified velocipede that was no match for her arcboard. She bested him easily, not far from Sennespay Hospital. Then there had been the bemedalled but slightly soused Valtamerian who had kept his lead all along Broadwalk and ultimately conceded defeat amidst the warren of stalls that made up the Harbour Gate fish market. Last, and most satisfying, was her brother-in-law, Ather Cho. Captain Ather Cho, whose rank meant he possessed a phaeton that was afternoonified indeed.
As her father’s personal secretary, Ather had done everything in his power to inflict small miseries upon Nyx since she had been allotted to Admiral and Seri Cormorant. He didn’t like Eidiki, she supposed.
Ather had barred her from her father’s offices. He “lost” progress reports from Academician Byrne. He shredded letters from the Atlantean Physickers Board, causing Nyx to miss the examinations compulsory for all Eidiki, which had nearly got her placed in confinement. Things only got worse after he married Nyx’s sister. Elodie had borne the first twins reported in the Empire for nearly a century, and both she and her husband radiated malice and smug fecundity. Oh, but how Nyx had got her own back!
A macaque hooted down at her from the mangosteen tree. Nyx hooted back, clicking the heels of her copper-toed boots together as she did a little jig.
She couldn’t stop picturing the shock on Ather’s face as she whizzed by, foul with canal water and fizzing with merriment. Ather was a cheat but Nyx had known cheats with faster phaetons, and her arcboard was equipped with retractable spider-silk wings.
When he knocked her into the Brephos, the wings sprang open and she was able to right herself, avoiding the drubbing he had so clearly been anticipating. She whisked away his shako as she passed and now he would have to attend the festival bareheaded or in a borrowed helmet. And he would have to explain to Elodie what he’d been doing out on a Jenny chase. Nyx tittered at the thought. It was too bad she’d had to dump the shako.
With her hair tucked into a leather bomber cap and phosphorous goggles hiding her eyes, she was sure Ather hadn’t recognised her. It would be half-cocked indeed to get touched over a trophy. She’d dance upon nothing if it were found she was an arconaut.
She arrived home just as the reveille sounded. The jaunty tones of the flugelhorn were barely audible here, across the Grand Canal, but, as always, being awake to hear the notes quickened her spirits and put a skip in her step. Though the crested gates of the Cormorant estate were still closed for the night, the gatekeeper had left the door to the guardbox open.
As usual, he was snoozing at his post, a bottle of lychee brandy hanging loosely from his fingertips. She bent low to take a celebratory slug. The locket around her throat swung open with a clack. The guard startled awake. Nyx blew him a kiss and bolted out the back of the hut, flinging open her arcboard as she ran.
She leapt aboard and coasted through the manicured gardens, still bluely shadowed and mysterious in the pre-dawn light. The gatekeeper would not give chase, she didn’t think. He was still half-rats, and anyway, by now he had to have guessed who left the bit of tipple for him now and then.
She ducked into the hedge maze just to be safe and extracted the battered locket from her tunic.
It was an unlovely thing: the copper casing dented from her various misadventures, the vaguely industrial-looking appendages sprouting from it displeasing in their asymmetry. When Eli had presented her with jewellery – and an unsightly piece at that – for her tenth allotment day, she had wondered aloud if he’d gone soft in the head. Then he showed her how, by some miracle of clockwork or engineering, the pendant folded itself into a small if serviceable radio transceiver. Made it myself, he’d told her.
With uncharacteristic tact, Nyx had refrained from complimenting him on finally succeeding with an invention. And indeed he had succeeded. She’d used the thing countless times over the past year – usually begging to be fetched from whichever unlikely corner of the city her latest race had deposited her in.
“Been out on the Jenny chase, have we, Eli?” she asked, shaking open the locket.
“And to think all this time we’ve been under the impression that Eidiki remember everything,” he replied rather acidly.
“Oh, Eli!” she exclaimed, smacking her forehead hard enough for him to hear. “Raoul’s! I’m so sorry.”
“Yes. Raoul’s indeed.”
She waited for him to go on, but he did not. “I’ll make it up to you, Eli, I promise. I’ll do anything. I’ll swim the bay. I’ll skin a monkey.”
“Thank you, Nyx,” he said, and she could feel him beginning to smile. “But that won’t be necessary. I have good news and bad. First?”
“Good. Always good.”
“Well, I ferreted out this Raoul of yours myself – ”
“Eli! You can’t just go charging about alone in places like Callowhill. You loggerheaded halfwit hedgepig!”
He sighed audibly. “I’m not as delicate as everyone seems to imagine.”
“One nick and you’d be deader n’ a Dalmatian.”
“I hardly think the sort of characters who go around nicking people in Callowhill are the sort who leave witnesses. You’d be deader than a Dalmatian too.”
Nyx picked her nose thoughtfully. If the rains didn’t come soon, she’d be stopped up with boulders. “Fair enough,” she conceded, unearthing the diamond-edged offender and flicking it into the roses.
“So do you want to hear how it went?”
“You got the thingamabob, I assume?”
“The transmitter, yes. But because it’s highly sensitive contraband, it was somewhat pricey.”
Nyx chortled. “Raoul had me harvesting ’gator eggs in the sewers for my phosphorous lenses. Goddess knows what he did with ’em. Fancied an omelette, maybe. What’s he asked of you?”
Eli hesitated. “That’s the thing. I had nothing he wanted, not even with the gold. But you do.”
“You traded a favour on me? To Raoul Contractor?”
“I tried radioing. You didn’t answer. And he said the transmitter would sure as sunrise be gone by tomorrow.”
“Well,” said Nyx, digging furiously. “What’ll it be?”
“Nothing as bad as ’gator eggs,” he said quickly. “You might like it, even. You’re to follow a Bull. A foreign brigadier. No engaging. Just see what he does. He’ll be on the move tomorrow – about this time. Raoul says he ought to be passing our tower. He’s given me an ambrotype of the brigadier’s phaeton.”
Excerpted with permission from The Flight Of The Arconaut, Sophia Khan, Red Panda.