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, and she finds herself embroiled in a dangerous political war. The stakes are greater than any heist she’s ever performed. When the battle brings her face to face with her father, Razia has the chance to reclaim everything she lost…and save her prince.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
STEALING THUNDER is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
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 the heels of our guru, Varsha, 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," 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 Sakshi'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.