Revealing the Cover for Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder — Plus Read Chapter One!

We’re thrilled to reveal the cover for Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder, an immersive epic fantasy inspired by the Mughal Empire. Stealing Thunder publishes with Ace in May 2020—check out the full cover and preview an excerpt below!

In a different life, under a different name, Razia Khan was raised to be the Crown Prince of Nizam, the most powerful kingdom in Daryastan. Born with the soul of a woman, she ran away at a young age to escape her father’s hatred and live life true to herself.

Amongst the hijras of Bikampur, Razia finds sisterhood and discovers a new purpose in life. By day she’s one of her dera’s finest dancers, and by night its most profitable thief. But when her latest target leads her to cross paths with Arjun Agnivansha, Prince of Bikampur, it is she who has something stolen.

An immediate connection with the prince changes Razia’s life forever. As their romance blossoms, Razia finds herself once more thrust into the dangerous world of politics in Daryastan, and in order to survive, she will need the skills of a courtesan, a thief, and a warrior princess.

Cover art by Greg Ruth; designer by Adam Auerbach


 

 

 

Chapter One

Like all creatures of the desert, I had learned to sleep off the worst of the day’s heat and to enjoy the cooling breezes that came with the night. All around me, the city of Bikampur was springing to a second life, invigorated by the same chill air that rippled across the surface of my own skin and threatened to snatch my dupatta from my head. My ears were filled with the sounds of men and women conversing from their canopied rooftops, their low murmurs of conversation mingling with the cries of street vendors and the rattling of their carts on the limestone-paved streets. There was nothing that stirred my heart quite like the magic of a desert night, and I followed close on Varsha’s heels as she led us out of the courtyard’s front gate.

“I heard that Govind Singh’s haveli has gems embedded in the walls,” Sakshi said to me, drawing me out of my thoughts. She was baiting me, fighting to keep a grin off her face.

“So?” I asked, giving her the shrug she expected, showing her just how unimpressed I was with such a paltry display of wealth. Once upon a time, when I was young and foolish, I’d made such comments in earnest, but those days were long past, and now it was a game I played with her and no one else.

Sakshi rolled her eyes with the drama of a performer and groaned. “Well, we weren’t all born in the lap of luxury like you, Razia. Who was your father again? The sultan of Nizam?”

My heart skipped a beat. Did she remember? I hadn’t mentioned him in years. I swallowed the knot of fear in my throat that always rose up at the mention of my homeland and kept my voice light. “No one so famous. But my father’s mahal did have gems embedded in the walls, and his throne was pure gold.” I hoped the details would distract her from my father’s precise identity. I trusted Sakshi with my life, but I’d never been able to make her understand the danger I was in, and I didn’t want to. She wouldn’t be able to sleep if she knew the truth.

“And you rode your first zahhak when you were four…” Sakshi heaved a wistful sigh. Her whole life, she’d always wanted to ride a zahhak, but had never got within a hundred paces of one. I relaxed a little as she stared off into the distance, no doubt imagining herself atop an azure-winged thunder zahhak. This was what she’d been after—a daydream. Sometimes I wondered if that was what she thought my past was—nothing more than a bedtime story I told myself to feel important.

“Enough of that nonsense,” our guru, Varsha, chided, and I knew it was for my benefit. Unlike Sakshi, she hadn’t forgotten who my father was, and she was clever enough to know the dangers my identity might bring down upon our heads if anyone were to find out. “Razia, I don’t care if you grew up in a royal palace or a gutter, our clients don’t like arrogant girls. So you’ll act impressed, even if you think Govind Singh is a camel herder with delusions of grandeur.”

There was more truth to Varsha’s words than she would have openly admitted. Govind Singh was a wealthy man, to be sure, but he had made most of that fortune investing in camels, or more particularly, in camel-laden caravans, which ferried goods from the interior, across the trackless desert, to the port cities of the south and the west. It was a far cry from the ideal for a Registani nobleman; they were supposed to be ferocious warriors who enriched themselves through force of arms.

But whatever I thought about Govind Singh, my guru was right: I couldn’t afford to be arrogant. I was a hijra, and while I belonged to a wealthy dera, my social standing was below even the most debased laborer. That was the bargain I had struck to live as my true self. There were times when I regretted it—nights when I missed my family, and my zahhak, Sultana, and the palace, but they were surprisingly few and far between. As difficult as life could be here, at least my life was my own, and at least I was me.

“Hot samosas! Hot jalebis!” a street vendor cried into the darkness, as he shoved his cart in the direction of the bazaar.

“Want to go to the bazaar after we’re finished with Govind Singh?” Sakshi asked me, her eyes lingering over the samosa walla’s cart, stories of gem-studded palaces forgotten in the wafting aromas of fried pastry dough and spiced potatoes.

“If Razia does her job well, she won’t be going home tonight,” Varsha reminded her—and me too. She glanced in my direction. “And you will do your job well, won’t you, dear?”

“Of course, Ammi,” I replied. I even managed to sound cheerful about it, though inwardly I was dreading the night to come. I didn’t know much about Govind Singh, but nobody had ever told me that he was handsome. Still, he was rich, so that was something. If I did well, I might earn myself a pretty bauble, or a few silver rupees. It wasn’t much, but it would go toward the money I was saving up to start my own dera someday. Then, I would take on young girls like me and train them in the fine art of making men desperate for their affections. Not that there was much art to it. I found that a wiggle of my hips and an alluring glance usually sufficed.

The houses around us began to shift as we made our way into the Neelam Mandi, the wealthiest part of the city. Gone were the mud-brick buildings in which the bulk of the city’s populace dwelled. Now, the gradually widening streets were lined with fine havelis of sandstone, their facades covered in intricately chiseled floral motifs. They stretched up above us, higher and higher as we walked, the tallest being five or six stories above the hustle and bustle of the street.

“When I’m a guru, I’m going to have a dera like that one,” Sakshi declared, gesturing to a tall building of pink sandstone, whose ground floor was ringed all around with arched doorways. The doors stood open, letting in the night air, but each entrance was guarded by a servant in a cheap white kurta wielding a sizable club.

“With the way you spend money?” Varsha laughed. “Sakshi, you’ll be lucky if you can afford a hut on the outskirts of town.”

“I’ve just had a lot of expenses this month is all, Ammi,” she replied, looking to me for support.

“Fortunately she has a few years to save up,” I said, which brought a smile to Sashki’s face, though I thought we both knew that there wasn’t a chance in the world that she would ever set foot in a house as beautiful as that one without being hired by its owners to do so.

“Not that it matters,” I told Sakshi, resting my arm across her shoulders. “Ammi has big plans for our dera, and a rising tide lifts all boats.”

“So I do,” Varsha agreed, but her tone told me not to say anything more, not out on the streets where people could hear.

I didn’t need the warning. I wasn’t stupid. If anyone found out that I was robbing our clients, I would be the one facing the punishment, and I wasn’t in any hurry to lose my head to the executioner’s sword just yet. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to linger on that line of thought, as we had arrived at Govind Singh’s home.

His haveli dominated one whole side of the Mahal Bazaar, its pink sandstone walls towering over those of its neighbors. The stone flowers and vines that snaked across the building’s facade were so delicately wrought that but for their color one could have been forgiven for believing that they were living, growing plants. A pair of men stood guard at the doors. Their colorful silk kurtas and gleaming armor set them apart from the common servants who served as the watchmen in the houses of the lesser nobles, as did the spears and shields they carried in place of the ubiquitous wooden clubs.

For hijras like us, approaching these armed men would have been a dangerous prospect had we not been hired by Govind Singh. Even so, I noticed the way that Sakshi’s eyes made a careful study of the ground at the men’s feet, while she stood back and let Varsha handle matters, and I wasn’t any braver. Four years of life as a hijra had stolen some of the princely confidence from my bearing, and I stood near my sister with eyes properly downcast.

Our guru showed no such trepidation. She clapped once, in the peculiar manner of our kind, and said, “I am Varsha Khan, and I have brought my girls to perform for Govind-Sahib.”

The men leered at us, paying particular attention to me, as I was dressed like a dancer in a bright silk lehenga, with a dupatta that was nearly transparent. To Varsha, the more senior of the two men said, “Govind-Sahib is expecting you.” At his pronouncement, the junior guard opened the gate to admit us into the courtyard, as if he were the guardian of a maharaja’s fortress, and not the doorman for a vainglorious spice trader.

Govind Singh’s courtyard doubled as a beautiful garden. Rosebushes lined the walkways, and mango trees stood proudly alongside them, their branches drooping beneath the weight of nearly ripened fruit. A marble fountain bubbled in the center of the courtyard, and perched atop it was the reason Varsha had chosen me to dance tonight instead of one of my older sisters: a golden statue of a peacock, with gemstones in place of its feathers. It was as big as my torso, and must have been far heavier. Stealing it wasn’t going to be easy, but I liked a challenge.

A eunuch came forward to greet us. Though he shared our hairless faces and slender physiques he wasn’t like us hijras in any way that mattered. We viewed nirvan, or castration, as a gift, and dressed as women and took alchemical medications to maintain a properly feminine appearance, but he was one of the poor unfortunates who had been sold into slavery, and had been mutilated without his consent. The difference was made manifest by the way he wore men’s clothing and a man’s turban, and stood with an exaggerated posture to emphasize his height, as if he were afraid of being seen as small or weak. It was apparent too, from our social positions. We were hired courtesans, and he was the respectable chamberlain of a fine home.

I had found that such men typically despised us. They resented the fact that we enjoyed the very same procedure that had ruined their own lives, and they were infuriated by the way other men referred to them as “hijras” to mock their emasculation. But if this particular eunuch hated us, it wasn’t plain on his face as he bowed his head and said, “Govind-Sahib is expecting you. Please, follow me, Varsha-Sahiba.”

“Thank you, Rawal-Sahib,” Varsha replied, following the eunuch toward a stairwell at the far end of the courtyard. “Are you well?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he assured her, though he didn’t inquire as to Varsha’s health. He just marched briskly ahead of us, barely glancing over his shoulder long enough to say, “Govind-Sahib is hosting his party on the roof today. I trust that won’t cause you any undue difficulties?”

“Not at all,” she said. “Sometimes I think Razia is graceful enough to dance on air.”

Rawal-Sahib snorted in response to that, but he was polite enough not to say anything insulting, which put him ahead of half the servitors I’d dealt with in the havelis of wealthy men.

We mounted the stairs, following him up flight after flight. Govind Singh’s haveli was eight stories tall, and everyone but me was breathing hard by the time we got to the top. I had climbed buildings taller than this one without the benefit of stairs, so I was mostly just concerned about sweating off my makeup. Fortunately, the higher we climbed, the cooler the air became, and that kept my perspiration at bay. By the time we reached the top, I could scarcely believe it was a summer evening rather than a winter one. It was no wonder Govind Singh had built his house so tall.

Cushions had been laid out all around the roof in a horseshoe-shaped pattern, with the two ends pointing at the stairwell. Tall candelabras of shining silver held dozens of candles, which sent cascades of light over the pink stones. Men sat on fine silk cushions, communal hookahs placed in front of them.

My eyes had only the briefest moment to take in the scene before a stirring of movement drew the crowd’s attention to the far end of the roof, where a mound of scales and feathers heaved a sigh and stopped my heart. Curled up in the corner was a zahhak. I hadn’t been so close to one since I’d fled home four years before, and the sight of her flame-colored scales and wings brought back a flood of emotions that I’d fought for years to repress.

“Is that…” Sakshi whispered.

“A fire zahhak.” Reverence filled my voice as I nodded to the thick, armor-like scales that covered the beast’s beaked snout, her sinuous neck, and the flesh of her enormous, muscular shoulders. She kept her feathered wings tucked close to her body, their plumage the color of fire itself. For the moment, she was lying placidly on the warm tiles of the haveli’s roof, but when she stood, those huge wings would double as front legs, lifting her shoulders a dozen feet off the ground.

“How can you tell it’s a fire zahhak?” Sakshi asked, startling me out of the spell I had fallen under.

“Her coloration, to begin with,” I replied, my voice dazed and distant, my mind filled with memories of the wind in my face and the world at my feet. It was hard to focus on dull description in the face of those racing thoughts, but it was safer, because my memories never came without fear.

“Fire zahhaks are creatures of the deserts of the world,” I continued. “They’re always colored like a Registani sunset.”

“Her coloration? How do you know she’s a female?”

“A male would be smaller,” I said, and it was a struggle to keep an exasperated tone out of my voice at having to explain something so obvious. Sometimes I had to remind myself that Sakshi wasn’t my real sister, that she hadn’t fled with me from the palace, that four years ago, a poor village girl like her would have had her tongue torn from her skull for daring to speak to me. I shouldn’t have felt so close to her, not after the way I’d been raised, but we hijras were bonded in ways outsiders could never understand.

“The males of all zahhak species are too small for serious flying,” I told her, keeping my voice gentle, “but the females are just the right size.”

“And how does a hijra come to know so much about zahhaks?” a man asked, drawing our attention away from the animal.

I turned my head, annoyed at having been interrupted in my lecture by some backward noble from Bikampur, and by the insulting tone with which he’d asked his question. My eyes landed on the speaker, and I forgot my irritation in a flash. He was a well-built, handsome man with a carefully trimmed beard that shone like obsidian in the candlelight. His eyes were the warm, almost liquid brown of a perfectly cooked jalebi. He wore a kurta of the finest green silk, shot through with golden threads, woven into patterns of fire-breathing zahhaks roaming the skies. On his head, in place of a turban, he wore a pair of goggles that would keep the wind from his eyes as he flew through the air. This zahhak must have belonged to him.

“Forgive me, my lord, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” I said, bowing to him with perfect grace, unable to disguise the interest in my voice.

He stood up, and he was much taller than I’d expected, his presence more imposing than I’d been prepared for, as he came forward and addressed me properly. “My name is Arjun Agnivansha. And what is your name, my dear?”

My breath caught in my throat. Arjun Agnivansha was the prince of Bikampur, the only son of the Maharaja Udai Agnivansha. I forced a smile and said, “My name is Razia Khan, my prince.”

He smiled back, his lively amber eyes taking me in from head to toe. “And how does a pretty little thing like you come to know so much about zahhaks?”

“Razia was a zahhak rider before she became a hijra, my prince,” Sakshi said, as proudly as if it had been her own accomplishment.

I was mortified at the prospect of having to craft some lie to disguise my past before the prince of Bikampur himself, but fortunately a portly man with a slender mustache distracted us all from Sakshi’s words with a loud guffaw. He sat at the center of the horseshoe of cushions, and he slapped his knee with mirth, bellowing, “Have you brought me a jester in place of a dancer tonight, Varsha?”

“You’ll have to forgive Sakshi, Govind-Sahib,” Varsha replied. “She has quite the imagination. But, I assure you, as a sitar player she has no equal in Bikampur.”

“Let’s put that claim to the test!” He clapped his hands and said, “Come, Prince Arjun, sit with me, and let’s find out if Varsha’s girls are worthy of their reputation.”

Prince Arjun smiled at me and went back to his place beside Govind, which was a huge relief. Servants immediately began plying him with fine wine. If I was lucky, he’d be too drunk to remember Sakshi’s words by the time the performance was over.

While the men prepared themselves, we took our places in front of them. Varsha laid out her tabla drums, and Sakshi handed me my bells before unwrapping her sitar.

“Are those zahhak bells?” Arjun asked, eyeing them intently.

I smiled at him just as sweetly and innocently as I could manage. “I wouldn’t know, my prince. I don’t have quite the imagination Sakshi does.”

My answer seemed to please him, and it drew a bark of laughter from Govind Singh. As it happened, they were zahhak bells, small ones used for training the young beasts before they were old enough to ride. They had the benefit, however, of being very loud, and very clear, and they added a distinctive sound to my dance when I tied them around my ankles. It was a sound that reminded me of home, and of long days hiking through the hills with a young zahhak on my fist in pursuit of game, though it had been many years since my Sultana had been small enough for such things.

When I had finished tying on my bells, and Sakshi had finished arranging her sitar, she began to play. I raised an eyebrow at the song she’d chosen, and she smiled back. It was a love song, of course, but one in which the woman doing the singing compares herself to a zahhak, and the man she loves is compared to the beast’s master.

With no choice but to perform the dance, I sat in the center of the roof, my knees drawn up to my chest, my gauze-thin silk dupatta draped over almost the whole of my body, mimicking a baby zahhak in her egg. As Varsha pounded out a beat on the tabla, and a cascade of notes spilled from Sakshi’s sitar, I began to sing, “Before I could breathe, I knew your voice.”

Slowly, as I repeated the lines again and again, I began to pull free of my dupatta, to expose first my hands, and then my arms, and then my face. Already, the men were leaning forward on their cushions eagerly. I stomped my foot on the ground, rattling my bells, in imitation of the crack of the egg finally splitting open. I stood up in a rush, like the explosive wriggle of a baby zahhak pulling herself free from her eggshell prison. The second verse of the song tumbled from my lips, the couplets expounding on the virtues of my master’s face—the first thing I had glimpsed in all the world.

The technical part of the dance began then, a constant drumming of my feet and swaying of my hips. I tried to mimic the undulating motions of a flying zahhak as I made my way across the floor, straight toward Prince Arjun. My dancing mistress had taught me to focus on a single man during this dance, to make him feel like he was my master, so I fixed my eyes on Arjun and was pleased to see his fixed on mine in return. I stamped my feet, ringing my bells in time with the beats of Varsha’s drums and the lively chords thrumming from Sakshi’s sitar. For a long, teasing moment, I swayed before Prince Arjun, looking at him the way Sultana used to look at me in those first few days after hatching, as if there was nothing in all the world but him, and I would follow him to the ends of the earth. Then, with mincing steps, I retreated from him, my dupatta billowing in the air behind me, obscuring my face from view.

Growing up, dancing had not been an occupation fit for a young prince, but I’d always loved it. There was something about the way I moved to the music that made me feel at home in a body that had always felt like a foreign prison. Now, having been trained by the finest dancing instructors in Bikampur, it was easy to get carried away by the music and the spirit of the dance. The movements came without thinking. It was very much like the connection between a rider and his zahhak—a connection I sorely missed. Even now, after so many years away from home, Sultana haunted my dreams. I would have given my right arm for the chance to fly with her in the skies above Nizam one last time.

I channeled that sense of loss into my dancing and my voice, and I watched Prince Arjun, keenly aware of every slight movement of his head, of every flicker of his eyes. He was gnawing hungrily on his lower lip, but his untouched food and wine suggested that his appetite had nothing to do with his stomach.

The little girl in me who still loved fairy tales wondered what it would be like to be loved by a prince, but the jaded courtesan I had become knew better. If I played my cards right, I could have the wealthiest client in the whole city before the night was out, but that was all it could ever be. I would enjoy his company for a few hours, and when he finally fell asleep, I would steal the peacock Varsha wanted. Come the morrow, I would be back home in the dera, ready to do it all over again. However much I wished it were otherwise, I couldn’t let myself forget that there are no fairy-tale endings for hijras.

I spun in mad circles across the floor, my skirt billowing out, revealing teasing hints of my calves, as Sashki’s playing reached its crescendo and the beats of Varsha’s tablas roared in my ears. At the song’s moment of climax, I threw myself to my knees before Arjun, my body swaying from side to side in imitation of the sinuous movements of a zahhak’s neck. I lowered my head and brought my dupatta back in front of my face as the last notes reverberated through the still night air.

My performance was met with cries of “Wah!” and “Mashkhuda!” but it was Prince Arjun’s reaction I was waiting for. It was difficult to discern the meaning behind his smile. Was he pleased? Was he just being polite? He still hadn’t remembered his wine or the men around him. That boded well.

“Come and sit with me, dear,” Prince Arjun said, gesturing to the cushion beside his. “I want to hear all about your zahhak.”

I frowned as I puzzled for a moment over whether he was teasing me or he had really believed Sakshi’s story. Ultimately, it didn’t matter; he had made a request, and my duty was to fulfill it. So I bowed my head and murmured, “Yes, my prince,” moving as gracefully as I could to his side, sinking slowly to the cushion beside his own.

“You’re a Nizami, aren’t you?” he asked me.

My hackles went up at the question and my heart fluttered in my chest, but I managed to keep a smile plastered over my face to hide the terror the question stirred in me. “How did you know?”

“With such fair skin, and green eyes like a thunder zahhak, what else could you be?”

My cheeks burned a little, and I felt a little rush of pleasure at having been compared favorably to the most beautiful zahhaks in all the world, but mostly I was just relieved that he didn’t know who I was. He couldn’t know. I’d been too careful for that, but the fear always lurked just beneath the surface of my heart, and the bare mention of my homeland was always enough to send it roaring through my body once more.

Prince Arjun stared at me for quite a long time before he asked, “So, you rode a thunder zahhak, did you?”

I found his smile insufferably inscrutable. Was he mocking me? Was he serious? I was half tempted to lie, because the threat of being discovered by my father was so much worse than a prince’s scorn, but I didn’t think he’d really believe me anyway, so I decided to answer him honestly. “That’s right. I rode with my father atop his zahhak as a child. I think from that moment forward I was never happy a moment in my life that I wasn’t flying.”

“Did you have a zahhak of your own?”

I still couldn’t tell if this was all a joke to him or not, and part of me was waiting for him to reveal the punch line, but he just stared at me without saying a word, leaving me with no choice but to answer him. After all, if I failed to engage him in conversation, if I failed to please him, then Varsha would be furious with me. She’d force me to do the housework and to stay home while my sisters danced and earned pretty baubles. I was in my prime earning years, so I could survive such punishments once or twice, but any more than that and I might find myself on the streets, or living as a glorified servant for my more talented sisters. I couldn’t bear the thought of serving Jaskaur’s smug face while she wore silks and gems. The mere prospect of it was enough to make me throw caution to the wind.

“When I was six, my father gave me an egg from the mountains of Rakha,” I said, hoping that my knowledge of thunder zahhaks would intrigue Arjun, though I couldn’t keep a note of wistfulness out of my voice as I recalled that day so long ago, when I’d cradled a hot egg the size of a cannonball in my lap, knowing that someday it would become a beautiful zahhak. “She hatched when I was seven, and I was riding her by the time I was ten. Her name was Sultana. Her scales were like polished sapphires, and her wings were cobalt above and molten gold below. By day, we were inseparable, and she slept at the foot of my bed each night.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. I couldn’t bear the mockery that I was sure would follow. I missed Sultana so much, missed how safe she’d made me feel when I was a child. After I ran away, there wasn’t a night that I didn’t wake up terrified not to find my great, feathered guardian watching over me. Even now, years later, there were nights when I reached my hand down to pat a familiar snout, only to snatch cold air.

“I’ve never heard of a zahhak rider running off to become a hijra,” Arjun said, and his tone made it plain that he doubted my story.

I bristled at that, offended, though I knew it was a foolish reaction. However irritating it was to be thought of as a liar and a fraud, being believed would have been far more dangerous. And anyway, this wasn’t my first night on the job. I knew better than to bare my soul to a client. I forced myself to smile, to put a lilting, teasing tone in my voice, as I asked, “My prince, are you not named for a zahhak rider who ran off to become a hijra, or have I misremembered the story of Arjun the Archer?”

His cheeks reddened a little, and he said, “That’s different. If I remember that story correctly, he was cursed to become a hijra.”

“So was I,” I replied, with more venom in my voice than I’d intended.

“You were?” he asked, his eyes widening. “Who cursed you?”

“God,” I answered, as that was the whole truth of it. How else could I explain my incurable desire to be a woman? What but a curse would have been powerful enough to convince me to run away from my father’s palace, to leave behind my beloved zahhak, to trade the life of a prince for that of a beggar? It defied all rational explanation.

“And what did you do to so offend your god?” he asked.

“If I knew that, my prince, I would be back home with my father at this very moment,” I declared, because even after everything that had passed between us, there was a part of me that would never stop seeking his approval.

“Why not go back now and ask for his forgiveness?”

I smiled at the naïveté of that. “My prince, if I went home now, my father would kill me, if the shame of seeing me this way didn’t strike him dead first.”

“Well, it pleases me to see you this way.” I was surprised to hear the huskiness in his voice, the yearning. I’d thought I was making a mess of things with all this talk of lost zahhaks and regret. That’s normally not a winning recipe in my line of work.

“On that we can agree, my prince.” I took the opportunity to pick up one of the silver-wrapped sweets from the tray in front of him and held it out to him like I intended to feed him. He leaned forward and opened his mouth, and I laid the sweet on his tongue, but I’d only just placed it when he snapped his teeth shut. I jerked my hand away with a startled gasp.

He laughed around the sweet as he chewed it. “Well, she’s got the reflexes of a zahhak rider,” he said to Govind Singh.

The older man laughed longer and louder than the joke deserved. He gave Arjun a thump on the back. “I’m glad she pleases you, boy.”

“Very much so,” Arjun replied, his amber eyes lingering on my face.

I stared right back at him, but I was careful not to smile. I’d found that men didn’t much care for a girl who knew how pretty she was, who understood men’s desires, because that would lead them inexorably to the all-too-correct conclusion that such a girl would know how to manipulate their affections for her own gain. Still, it was hard not to let the possibilities run through my mind. If I could make the maharaja’s son my client, I could rebuild the life that I’d been forced to give up to live as my true self. Wealth and power would be mine for the asking. It was a seductive idea, but a dangerous one too. Princes are like wild zahhaks—they have their pick of prey, they’re difficult to trap, and they’re deadly if they know they’re being hunted.

“When you told me you had hired hijras to dance for us, Uncle, I envisioned a gang of bearded ruffians in lehengas,” Arjun said, which hurt more than I wanted to admit. He smiled at me, faintly amused, and for an instant that made me even angrier, but as his grin widened, I realized my irritation was visible in the pout of my lips. He was teasing me deliberately, poking holes in the sensual mask I was always so careful to construct in front of the men I served.

“Varsha’s girls? Ruffians?” Govind laughed and shook his head. “No, they’re elegant creatures, women in all but name.”

“So they are,” Arjun agreed, his eyes roving over my chest, the bare flesh hidden only by the diaphanous silk of my dupatta. I stretched my pout into a smile on hearing that, like I was totally unaware of the game he was playing, and I thought I caught a twinkling in his amber eyes in response.

“I’d never bring low-class dancers into my home, hijra or otherwise. I’m a cautious man in whom I hire to serve me,” Govind continued. “I have to be these days, what with the rash of thefts sweeping the city.”

My ears perked up at the mention of thefts, though I was careful to look disinterested. Still, the thought that they were talking about my handiwork right in front of me quickened my heart. If they ever found out that I was the thief, I would die a terrible death, but judging from the looks they were sending my way, I thought they hadn’t the slightest clue. I didn’t particularly care for stealing, but I relished the feeling of outsmarting a group of men who were so certain that they were better than me—especially Prince Arjun Agnivansha, who was still looking smug over his triumph in our earlier exchange.

“I heard about that,” said another man. “Just last week, the necklace Suresh Satav bought for his wife was stolen.”

“Probably a light-fingered servant,” Prince Arjun muttered as I refilled his wine cup for him.

“Perhaps,” Govind allowed, “though if it was one of Suresh’s servants, he’s been a very busy man. Two weeks before that, a rare statue was stolen from Narendra Chadakar’s altar.”

I smiled a little. That job had been particularly tough. I’d had to scale the walls of his home, then take the stairs all the way back down to the first floor without being spotted. And then I’d had to take the idol and do the whole thing over again. Of course, that little escapade was nothing compared to what it would take to get the peacock. Tonight’s work would be a real test of my skills.

“Have there been more such thefts?” Arjun asked.

“Many more,” said Govind.

“And no one’s been caught?”

“No one even knows who to blame.”

“Well, I’ll catch him, then,” Arjun declared, and it was very hard to keep a smug look off my own face. The poor boy hadn’t the slightest clue who he had sitting beside him. Ruffian in a lehenga indeed.

“You?” Govind asked. “And how do you propose to do that?”

“I’ll make nightly patrols with Padmini, of course,” he said, gesturing to his zahhak. “If the thief is out there, we’ll find him.”

He sounded so confident that I pitied him a little, but even if he didn’t have much chance of catching me, his declaration brought the same stirring in the pit of my stomach that I always got before a really dangerous theft. It was a feeling I treasured, a feeling that reminded me I was alive. It would be a thrill to match wits with a handsome prince, though I didn’t much care for his chances.

“I’ll drink to that,” Govind declared, raising his wine goblet in salute. Both men downed their cups, and I rushed to refill them.

Arjun noticed, and his arm fell over my shoulders. His grin was a little lopsided. He’d had quite a bit of wine—all part of the plan.

“Boy, you’re in no condition to fly back to the palace,” Govind informed him. “I would be honored if you would stay the night here. I’m sure Razia wouldn’t mind helping you with all that you require.”

“It would be my honor, my prince,” I told him, my voice breathy, my tone promising help of all kinds.

Arjun’s grin widened. He stood up abruptly, pulling me to my feet alongside him. “In that case, Razia-Sahiba, allow me to honor you,” he said, as the pair of us walked arm in arm toward the stairs

 

Excerpted from Stealing Thunder, copyright © 2019 by Alina Boyden.

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