The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Alina Boyden’s epic fantasy Gifting Fire, the sequel to Stealing Thunder—available now from Ace.
Although at long last Razia Khan has found peace with herself and love with her prince, Arjun, her trials are far from over. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia made a deal with the devil—her father, the Sultan of Nizam. Now the bill has come due.
Razia must secure the province of Zindh, a land surrounded by enemies, and loyal to a rebel queen who has survived her father’s purge. But when her old tormentor Prince Karim invades her new home and forces her into a marriage alliance, Razia finds herself trapped in the women’s quarters of a foreign palace, with her beloved Prince Arjun exiled from her side.
Now, in order to free herself, and her province, from Karim’s clutches, she must call upon all of her training as a royal princess, a cunning courtesan, and a daring thief to summon new allies and old friends for a battle that will decide her fate, and the fate of an empire.
I lay in Arjun’s arms for what felt like the first time in months, though it was hard to give him the attention he deserved when there was so much uncertainty swirling around us. It hung in the air like a foul odor, one that even the strong desert breezes couldn’t dispel.
He traced my cheek with the back of a finger, the tingle of my skin beneath his touch driving away the dark thoughts that lingered in the back of my mind.
“Leave it,” he whispered.
“Leave what, my prince?” I asked, looking up into his warm amber eyes as he rested beside me, propped up on one elbow, the other hand caressing my face.
“This province and its worries,” he replied.
Leaving it sounded nice. I wanted to forget about Zindh for a few minutes, to not worry so much over armies and zahhaks and potential enemies. But the doubts could not be so easily banished. “How can I stop thinking about it, when there’s so much left to do?”
“I have a few ideas in mind,” he replied, bringing his lips to mine, the gentle, insistent pressure doing a remarkably good job of making me forget about being a subahdar. I reached up and ran my fingers through his hair, as his hands wormed their way between my back and the bedsheets. He pulled me close to him, until the hard, hot muscles of his chest were burning against my skin.
I let go of his hair and reached instead for the waist cord of his trousers, my fingers working it loose with two deft tugs. How often had I been made to practice that back home in Bikampur?
His hands began hiking up my ajrak skirt, but they paused as a trumpet bleated out a series of harsh notes somewhere in the distance. The cadence was as familiar to me as the steady thumping of Arjun’s heart against my own breast. It was the call a lookout sent when unknown zahhaks were spotted, and it was followed by their species and their number—thunder, sixteen; acid, five.
“Sixteen thunder zahhaks could be your father,” Arjun murmured, the threat of so many unknown animals in the air driving all the passion out of the pair of us. “But the Nizamis don’t fly acid zahhaks.”
“Our men in Vanga subah do,” I corrected as I rolled out of bed, slipping my feet into soft leather slippers. “But they wouldn’t be here, and my father has no reason to come back, not unless he wants to make war on Mahisagar.”
“The acid zahhaks could be Mahisagari,” Arjun allowed as he tied his trousers back into place and reached for his kurta. “But why would they be flying with your father instead of against him?”
“And how would they have five?” I asked. “They only had four a few weeks ago. Where would they have come up with a fifth?”
“So it’s Safavia, then,” Arjun reasoned, hurrying now to get his sash tied around his waist, to snatch up his flying goggles.
My heart hammered in my chest. Safavia might have got acid zahhaks from Ahura, or one of the other coastal islands. But Arjun was right, they were the only power on the continent that could field sixteen thunder zahhaks other than my father, or perhaps the Rakhans far to the north. If Shah Ismail was here now, then his army wouldn’t be far away.
But it was another thought that really put fear in my heart. Sakshi and Lakshmi were the riders we had up on patrol alongside Hina’s river zahhaks. If the Safavians decided to attack…
I ran out of the room, slamming straight into the hard mass of muscle and steel that was Sikander, who had just been coming to get me. I rebounded off of him, and would have fallen flat on the floor if he hadn’t steadied me with strong arms. “Your highness—” “I heard the trumpet!” I exclaimed, pushing him aside and racing for the zahhak stables. “We have to get airborne now, while
there’s still time!”
“Your highness!” Sikander grabbed my arm, holding me back. “My sisters are up there!” I practically screamed it in his face, but no matter how I twisted I couldn’t wrench my arm free from his grasp. “We have to move now!”
“Your highness, the thunder zahhaks belong to your father, I’m sure of it,” Sikander said, his voice calm and steady.
I glanced up at the sky, where the sixteen thunder zahhaks were already circling high above my sisters and the four fliers Hina had sent out on patrol that morning. From so far away, one thunder zahhak looked much like another, but I knew Malikah, my father’s mount, from every angle, and there was no mistaking the distinctive pattern of black barring on the golden undersides of her wing and tail feathers.
“What’s he doing here?” I wondered aloud.
Sikander’s hand slid free of my arm as he realized that I wasn’t going to rush off in a blind panic to
attack. He pointed with his other hand toward a cluster of zahhaks lower down, coming forward to make a landing approach.
The five emerald and turquoise acid zahhaks were keeping perfect formation as they flared wide their peacock-like tails, back-beating their wings to slow themselves as they overflew the walls of the palace. At their head was an animal I knew well, having flown alongside her in the battle against Javed Khorasani. Her name was Amira, and she belonged to none other than Karim Shah of Mahisagar.
“Your highness!” Hina exclaimed, rushing toward us with her celas close behind. “What’s going on? Are we under attack? My fliers don’t have weapons!”
“It’s my father,” I told her, pointing to the thunder zahhaks, which were circling lower and lower, forcing Lakshmi and Sakshi to give way, lest they put themselves in an indefensible position.
“What about the acid zahhaks?” she asked, nodding to the ones that were just now landing near the stables.
I swallowed hard, not wanting to tell her the truth, but knowing that a lie would be so much worse, and would spare her nothing. “One of them was Amira, Karim Shah’s animal.”
“Why would your father be with Prince Karim?” Hina demanded, her voice shrill with panic. “Was this a trick the whole time?”
I held up my hand to forestall a fight and said, “I don’t know any more than you do. If I’d had the slightest inkling that Karim was showing up, do you really believe I’d have placed my sisters on patrol today?”
“I don’t know,” Hina answered, her voice tight with fear. “Maybe you had an arrangement with him this whole time.”
“She did not,” Arjun snapped. “Razia would never play you falsely. She has treated you with nothing but courtesy, and you owe her the same.”
Hina crossed her arms over her chest, her mouth clamped tightly shut, though it was plain that she was close to panicking. Her celas were gathered close around her, hugging one another, their fear palpable. Karim had murdered their king; they’d exhausted themselves fleeing him. They had come here in the hopes that they might escape the same fate, that they might find some way to get their revenge, and now it looked as if they’d been played for fools all along, that it was all for nothing, that they would be slaughtered.
I went to Hina and put my hands on her shoulders. “I don’t know what’s going on, but what I do know is that you protected me when I needed you, Hina. I’ll do the same for you. I swear to God, whatever happens, no one is going to hurt you or any of your people. I give you my word.”
She nodded, but her mouth was a hard line, and tears were spilling down her cheeks as she fought to get her emotions under control. I couldn’t blame her. I was furious and afraid too, and Karim hadn’t killed my family members. I kept my arms around Hina as I waited for my father and Prince Karim to arrive.
“What are your orders, your highness?” Sikander asked. “Have our trumpeters order my sisters and Hina’s fliers to de-
scend to the diwan-i-khas and land there. I don’t want them anywhere near the Mahisagaris,” I said. I flickered my eyes to meet Hina’s, took a deep breath, and added, “And I want guards in the middle courtyard, a lot of them. When Prince Karim lands, he is to be arrested, disarmed, and brought before me as a prisoner.”
“I’ll see to everything, your highness,” Sikander promised, but then he added something that I wished he hadn’t. “Unless your father countermands it.”
I grimaced, but nodded. I couldn’t very well ask Nizami men to go against their sovereign, and Sikander knew as well as I did that my father must have had a reason for traveling with Karim rather than simply knocking his zahhaks out of the sky.
But we weren’t the only ones drawing that conclusion. Hina and her celas were glowering at the descending zahhaks, and I had to admit that their arrival didn’t do much for my mood either, because try as I might, I couldn’t work out what Karim and my father would have been doing flying together. Karim had attacked one of our cities. How could my father possibly let that stand? Shouldn’t he have dealt with Karim when he had the chance? And anyway, the five acid zahhaks landing in the middle courtyard told me that Karim’s father, Ahmed Shah, was here too. With all of Mahisagar’s nobility at our mercy, with the entire male royal line here in our province, why not just kill them all and take Mahisagar for ourselves? That idea must have occurred to my father, so why hadn’t he done it? It wasn’t like him to hesitate at times like this.
Well, whatever my father wanted, I didn’t have to abide by it. I had soldiers now too, and with Sikander gone to deal with Karim and the Mahisagaris, I was free to issue whatever orders I liked to those men I controlled who were not ultimately beholden to my father.
“My prince,” I said, turning to Arjun, “I want Bikampuri musketeers on the parapets of the inner courtyard, as many as you can muster, before Karim or my father can get here.”
“Right,” he agreed, and he took off at a dead run to see it done. To Hina, I said, “Get as many Zindhi men in this courtyard as you can. Whatever my father is planning, it’s obvious he hasn’t killed Karim and the Mahisagaris. If he means to ally with them,
I must have the means of refusing him.”
Hina nodded, her expression grim. “I’ll see to it.”
She started to leave, but I grabbed her before she could take a step. “But my father cannot be killed. I want to make that clear from the start. We can’t fight Nizam, and killing him would make everything worse.”
“I understand, your highness,” she assured me. I let her go, and she went with her celas to see to the disposition of their soldiers.
Trumpets blared, and my sisters were quick to descend toward the diwan-i-khas. I ran to meet them, hoping that this wasn’t what it looked like, that my father hadn’t cut some deal with Karim and Ahmed, granting them control of Kadiro, but I couldn’t think of another explanation.
I reached the diwan-i-khas at about the same time that my sisters landed with Hina’s fliers. Lakshmi came running toward me right away. “Akka! Akka! Did you see? It’s Prince Karim!”
She sounded excited, which made my insides twist. Karim had always been careful to be kind to her, to use all of his considerable charms on her. He was nothing if not experienced at grooming young girls to be abused later, and the fact that my little sister came from a coastal city where handsome men rode acid zahhaks had made her even more vulnerable. I’d tried to explain to her that he was a bad man, but she wasn’t old enough to understand manipulation.
“I saw,” I said, letting my tone tell her how unexcited I was to see Karim. “We are going to wait for him here.” I nodded to the baradari, and to my throne. “He attacked us in Kadiro, and he killed Hina’s brother, remember?”
“I don’t think he would do something like that, Akka,” Lakshmi told me.
“He did!” Nuri exclaimed, the young girl from Hina’s ranks having flown right alongside Lakshmi on patrol. She was still holding the reins of her river zahhak, and her fury made the animal turn its head toward Lakshmi in alarm.
“We stay calm when we are around zahhaks, Nuri,” I reminded her, my voice gentle. The last thing we needed was to get in a shouting match.
“But it’s true,” she insisted, her voice softening nonetheless.
“I know it’s true,” I assured her. “I will see to everything; I’ve given Jama Hina my word. For now, we must wait, all right?”
Nuri nodded, as did the older celas arrayed around her. I took Lakshmi with me to my throne, collecting her thunder zahhak’s reins along the way. Sakshi and Ragini joined us, for which I was wholly grateful. I wished more than anything that Sultana was beside me, rather than in the stables, but two obedient thunder zahhaks and hundreds of loyal soldiers would be protection enough against my father and Karim and whatever they were planning.
Excerpted from Gifting Fire, copyright © 2021 by Alina Boyden