I did not choose this fate. But I will not walk away from it.
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Intisar Khanani’s young adult fantasy novel The Theft of Sunlight—publishing March 23rd with HarperTeen.
I did not choose this fate. But I will not walk away from it.
Children have been disappearing from across Menaiya for longer than Amraeya ni Ansarim can remember. When her friend’s sister is snatched, Rae knows she can’t look away any longer—even if that means seeking answers from the royal court, where her country upbringing and clubfoot will only invite ridicule.
Yet the court holds its share of surprises. There she discovers an ally in the foreign princess, who recruits her as an attendant. Armed with the princess’s support, Rae seeks answers in the dark city streets, finding unexpected help in a rough-around-the-edges street thief with secrets of his own.
But treachery runs deep, and the more Rae uncovers, the more she endangers the kingdom itself.
There’s a mangy dog crouched beneath the second-to-last vegetable cart. As a rule, I avoid mangy dogs. Especially ones with bloodshot eyes and a clearly infected paw. But this is a sad looking creature, its narrow face streaked with mud and its coat thinned to almost nothing over its ribs, skin scaly and pink beneath the grime.
“Something wrong?” Ani asks as she switches her brightly woven market basket to her other arm. At her side, her little sister, Seri, dips a booted toe into a puddle left from this morning’s spring rains beside her. The crowd around us shifts and moves, a sea of brown faces and bright clothing filling the wide town square to brimming. For a moment I lose sight of the dog as a group of older women push past, skirts flapping around sturdy boots.
“No,” I say, turning to my friend. “I’m just wondering where Bean is. Have you seen her, Seri?”
Seri looks up, twin black braids swinging. “Oh yes! She’s across by the horses. Should I go get her?”
Seri grins and scampers away after my own little sister. “Seri! Watch where you’re going!” Ani calls helplessly. “She’s quick,” I assure her. There’s not much harm a six-year-old can come to at Sheltershorn’s market day; for all the crowd of shoppers, almost everyone knows one another, and no one would be so stupid as to come galloping through on a horse. In truth, the biggest danger here would be the mucky puddles, and I’m pretty sure Seri loves running through those.
“Do you need anything else?” Ani asks, glancing into her basket. “Mama wanted me to find radishes, but I haven’t seen any.”
“Might still be too early,” I observe. “They should have them next week. Ours are only just starting to mature.”
Our home may be a horse farm, but Mama and my middle sister, Niya, make sure we have a few beds of greens and vegetables, and our early spring greens are growing strong this year. Really, the only reason we’re here at the first big market day of the spring is to catch up with our friends.
Ani and I are still chatting by the cart when Seri comes racing back, dragging the much taller Bean by the hand. “I found her!”
“I was busy,” Bean protests, nearly tripping as she jerks to a stop before us. At fourteen, she’s like a young colt unused to the way of her limbs, still awkward and liable to knock things over, including herself. “Couldn’t it have waited, Rae?”
I pretend to consider this. “But there’s someone under the cart there I thought you might be able to help.”
“Someone—?” Bean echoes at the same time that Ani swivels around to look under the cart.
“That thing is—it’s diseased!” Ani exclaims, reaching to grab Seri before she can dart closer for a look. “You can’t mean for Bean to approach it?”
“Bean has a way with animals,” I say serenely. Even mangy, red-eyed creatures that could scare away grown men.
“Oh, you poor baby,” Bean croons, squatting beside us. The dog looks over and wags its bedraggled tail once, proving my point.
“Come on out, sweet baby.” Bean holds out an inviting hand. “We’ll get you cleaned up and then no one”—she spares Ani a hard look—“can call you mean names. And maybe my sister Niya can take care of your paw. She’s very good with cuts. And I know a thing or two about them as well.”
The dog, lured by Bean’s innate kindness, creeps out from under the cart and sits at her feet, earning a series of exclamations from the adults around us.
“Eh, Rae-girl!” the vegetable woman cries, her silver hoop earrings swinging. She’s known us since we were born, and isn’t the least surprised to see Bean with a bedraggled stray, “Take that creature away now. I can’t have it by my food.”
“Of course, auntie,” I say, dipping my chin in respect. “Bean, do you think the dog can make it to our cart? You know where Mama left it.”
“Sure she can,” Bean says, one hand buried in the patchy bit of fur about the dog’s neck, scratching vigorously. I wince.
“Just . . . make sure to wash your hands afterward, all right?” Bean casts me a disgusted look and rises to her feet. “Come on, little lady. You can ride in our cart, and we’ll get you all cleaned up at home.”
“You aren’t actually taking that creature home?” Ani breathes. Even she doesn’t dare say such a thing loud enough for Bean to hear.
“Of course she is,” Seri asserts, her eyes shining with adoration for her heroine.
“Someone has to take care of it,” I point out as the dog limps off beside my sister. “She’ll fit right in with all of Bean’s other reclamation projects. You’ll see, Mama won’t even say a word.”
But Ani’s not listening anymore. Seri’s run ahead to catch up with Bean and the dog. Ani calls after her, “Seri—you may watch only! No touching! Bean, see that she doesn’t!”
I suppress a grin and walk on, knowing that Bean will make sure Seri stays safe around the dog. When Ani quits yelling, I point out the final cart in the marketplace. “Good news! I’ve found your radishes.”
Ani’s face lights up, and she happily sets to bargaining for them. I wander a little farther on, coming to a stop where the road leaves the square. It’s a bright beautiful day, the tall adobe buildings bathed in sunlight, the great wood timbers that strengthen each floor throwing shadows where they extrude from the walls. Above the noise of the market, I can hear birds chittering, and I can still smell the fresh scent of green things blowing in from the plains.
“Now there’s a girl who’ll end up alone,” a voice says somewhere behind me.
I freeze up, my shoulders stiff as old wood. I can’t even make myself turn around, or look to see who else they might be talking about. I don’t have to, anyhow. I know it’s me.
“No surprise there,” another voice says. “Shame her parents’ll have to keep her. No one else will.”
I make myself turn to the side and stump away, back toward Ani, because I don’t need to see who’s talking to know which boys they are. And anyway, I won’t end up alone. I’ve got my sister Niya, same as she’s got me.
“What is it?” Ani asks as I reach her. She glances past me. “Were those boys bothering you?”
“No.” My voice is flat and hard. I try to ease it a bit. “They didn’t say a word to me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Finyar’s son, and he’s always full of ugly things. Want me to punch him for you?”
I laugh, taken back to that day Ani and I became friends a good twelve years ago, when she punched a boy who was heck- ling me and then proceeded to play with Bean. Anyone who would take on bullies and befriend toddlers couldn’t possibly be someone I didn’t want to know. Even if I prefer to fight my own battles.
She flexes her fingers now. “You know, you haven’t let me punch anyone in ages. How are they going to learn their manners if someone doesn’t set them straight?”
“They’re not worth it,” I say easily. That much, at least, is true. They aren’t even worth acknowledging. “And it would ruin a lovely day. Let their mothers deal with them.”
Ani snorts but lets the subject drop. I loop my arm through hers, and together we make our way back through the market. We spend a half hour catching up with mutual friends before parting ways, Seri pattering off to visit her grandmother and Ani calling admonishments to watch her step.
Ani and I get along wonderfully, Mama once told me, because at heart we were both cut from the same stubborn cloth, tight-woven and sheltering. Ani would go to war for her friends, and for her sister. And I’ve learned to do whatever it takes to protect my own sisters: Bean from her hotheadedness, and Niya because of the secret she keeps.
Still, Sheltershorn is a quiet town. There are few dangers, even fewer strangers, and little that threatens us beyond inclement weather and the occasional accident. So, when Ani comes up to our cart over an hour later, as we ready ourselves for the ride back home, it doesn’t occur to me that anything can be too wrong. The market is slowly emptying out, the remaining shoppers lingering over their purchases as they catch up with friends. There’s nothing apparent to worry about.
“Rae,” Ani says, glancing from me to Bean and back again. “Have you seen Seri? I can’t find her anywhere. It’s been an hour at least.”
“What?” Mama asks, coming around the cart.
Inside the cart, seated as far from the dog as possible, my middle sister, Niya, looks up, gray eyes worried.
“It’s my sister,” Ani says, the gentle brown of her face faintly sallow. “I can’t find her.”
Excerpted from The Theft of Sunlight, copyright © 2021 by Intisar Khanani.