I did not choose this fate. But I will not walk away from it. Prepare to be swept away by the Moroccan-inspired fantasy world of Intisar Khanani’s new novel The Theft of Sunlight! And get excited fans of Intisar’s first book Thorn, because you might recognize a few crossover characters!
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.
Start reading the first three chapters of The Theft of Sunlight!
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. 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 scruffy 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 long silver 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.
“Someone has to take care of it,” I say 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 hard and flat. I try to ease it a bit. “They didn’t say a word to me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Finyar’s son; 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 dozen years ago, when she punched a boy who was heckling me and then proceeded to play with Bean. Anyone who would take on bullies and then befriend a toddler 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.”
“Could she have gone off with a friend?” Mama asks, calm as always.
Ani hesitates. “She said she was going to our grandmother’s, but when I went to fetch her, Nani said she’d never come. No one’s seen her along the way, either. I know she’s not at home. I was hoping she’d come back to check on the dog.”
Bean frowns. “She only helped me settle it in, and then she went back to you.”
“You haven’t seen her since?” Ani asks.
We shake our heads.
“We’ll help you look,” Mama says. “Bean and I will ask the market sellers with you. Rae and Niya, you head to Ani’s home and ask everyone along the way. Niya . . . you don’t mind helping?”
It’s not the question it seems to be. In that moment, I know Mama believes something bad has happened to Seri, because she’s asking Niya to look for Seri in the way only she can, using the magic that she’s kept hidden her whole life. Mama would never ask such a thing unnecessarily.
It’s a risk—it always is, when Niya uses her magic—becauseby this point, we’ve broken every law there is about harboring a secret talent. She should have been taken from us when her powers
first manifested, to be trained as a mage in service to the king, but Mama and Baba had met a mage or two by then. They didn’t want their child taken away and raised to be a stranger. So they kept her, and hid her, and Niya has trained herself, working small magics around the ranch, and then teaching herself healing to help the animals, and eventually to subtly aid Mama’s midwifery patients when nothing else can. Only a handful of people know Niya’s secret, and for Mama to ask her to use her gifts now? She’s very worried.
“Of course I’ll help,” Niya says. She grabs the small bag that holds her sewing and hops down from the wagon. “Come on, Rae.”
“ Were there any strangers here today?” I hear Bean ask as Niya and I start walking. I cock my head, listening, and catch Mama’s answer: of course there were a few, but we can’t assume it was strangers.
We also can’t assume that it wasn’t.
“Do you think she could have been . . .” Niya hesitates, and I hear the word she won’t say, the one I don’t want to speak either.
“That hasn’t happened in years,” I say, my voice short.
“But it has happened.”
I look away. “That’s why you need to track her.”
It’s still possible Seri only popped into a friend’s house and is happily eating honey cakes, blissfully unaware of our worry.But Ani’s already been asking about her all over town; someone would have said if they’d seen her.
“Hurry,” I say, walking as fast as my uneven gait can take me. Niya keeps pace easily. We call out to the people we see, all of them familiar, and by the time we’ve arrived at the blacksmith’s home, right beside the smithy, there are a dozen more people out looking for Seri. All the children have been sent home, though.
“Rae?” Ani’s mother, Shimai, calls out to us as we hurry to her. She stands with two other women just outside her house, one of them holding a bread basket. It’s a normal scene. Too normal. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that Ani’s mother wouldn’t know about Seri’s disappearance. But then she says, sharply, “Seri’s not at my mother’s, is she?”
I shake my head. “She never went there. Do you know where she could be? Ani and my family are searching the market, and we’ve asked all along the way here. No one’s seen her in the last hour or so.”
Beneath the brown of her skin, Shimai’s face pales, her lips bloodless. “She has to be here.”
“We should mount a proper search,” one of her friends says.
“Before it gets any later. There’s no time to lose.”
“I’ll check her friends’ houses,” the other says. “Shimai, where should I—?”
Shimai gives herself a shake and starts forward with a jerk, her expression shifting from panic to determination. She rattles off a short list of friends’ names for her friend to check, directs the other to inform her husband, who is absent from the smithy today of all days, and sets off down the street toward the market to rally a proper search. As she hurries past, she says, “Rae, you get your sister somewhere safe. Both of your sisters, just in case. They can stay in my house, if needed.”
“Yes, auntie,” I say, thankful for the excuse to send Niya into the house.
I stand in the doorway, watching Shimai as she races down the street, her legs flashing beneath her skirts. Behind me, Niya runs upstairs. This is why Mama sent us here: if we can recover a hair or two, or possibly even a ribbon or scrap of cloth that Seri has worn, then Niya might be able to use it to track her.
“Got it,” Niya calls from upstairs, and I sag against the doorframe with relief. “Took a hair from her comb.”
“Good. What else do you need?”
“Water. I’ve got everything else.”
There’s the kitchen, which has the decided advantage of keeping us hidden from sight. “Will a bowl do?”
Niya nods. “Just fine.”
“This way.” I lead the way through a house I know as well as my own. The adobe walls are smooth and cool, the kitchen shutters pushed open to light the room with its fire grate to one side and its low worktable to the other. I fill a bowl with water from a pitcher while Niya hurries outside, returning a moment later with a leaf in her hand. She pulls the door shut behind her.
I set the bowl before her as she drops onto a cushion before the table. “Do you know how to do it?”
She shrugs, delving into her bag. “I’ve never tried tracking before, but I know how to make a compass. If I can get the compass to point toward her, rather than north, then we’ll have a direction.”
“Brilliant.” I sometimes wonder if Niya wishes our parents hadn’t hidden her. Wishes she could have learned these things properly instead of fighting her way to each new success, all in secret.
“Not my idea,” she mutters. “Heard about it once. It has to do with flow.”
I nod and close the connecting door to the kitchen, as well as the shutters. I light a lamp to take the place of the sunlight. When I turn back, Niya has set a leaf on the water, and on top of that, her prized silver needle. She snips a small length of the hair she took from Ani and Seri’s room and sets it beside the needle.
There are two ways mages have for working with the latent magic around us—what is often referred to as the current. One can work with the flow of magic, directing it into new uses and directions, or one can work with the patterns that exist already, replicating those with slight shifts to achieve one’s aim. Flow tends to be the preferred method taught in Menaiya, because, quite simply, it is easier to master. Niya discovered a long time ago that a fever might be understood as a flow of heat and healing through the body, which her magic could mimic and more efficiently complete without harming the body.
Now she holds one hand over the leaf with its double burden, her head bent so low I can barely see past it. If she starts with the attraction of a magnetized needle toward the North Pole and redirects its flow—from the pole to Seri—we’ll have a way to focus our search.
I wait, listening for the sound of someone entering the house. Anything to indicate I need to hide what Niya’s doing. I can hear a woman calling to her children somewhere in the distance, and the general sounds of the town: a wagon creaking its way down the road, chickens clucking in someone’s backyard, and, faintly, people calling Seri’s name.
I swallow and glance back at Niya.
She looks up. “It’s not working. I don’t know if it’s me or . . .”
“Here,” I say, catching the end of one of my braids. “Try my hair. See if that works.”
Niya takes the bit of hair I snap off and bends over her bowl again. I grip my skirt with my fists and hope, hope that it’s Niya’s magic that isn’t working, and not . . . not that Seri is truly beyond our reach.
“It’s working,” Niya says, her voice flat. I look down to see the leaf has turned, the silver needle glinting brighter than it should as it points straight toward me.
I raise my eyes to Niya’s. Seri isn’t just missing. She’s somewhere even magic can’t find her.
She’s been snatched.
Mama sends me home with Bean and Niya. While they shut up the house, closing the shutters and bolting the doors, Baba and I take a dozen horses with us to town as mounts for the search parties. By dusk, Sheltershorn feels like a different place, the square deserted and the streets empty. Not a child can be seen anywhere, all of them kept indoors for fear that the snatchers might strike again while everyone is searching for Seri.
We search through the dark, hour after hour. But night edges into dawn, and the search parties have scoured every hidden vale and winding road, and there is still no sign of Seri. Mama and I return home to rest for a few precious hours as dawn burgeons into day. Baba will lie down at a friend’s house in town, that he might rejoin the search efforts that much quicker.
“Any news?” Niya asks as she and Bean join us to help untack the horses.
Mama shakes her head.
“We’re not giving up,” I tell my sister. “We just need a rest. Is there anything else you can do to help?”
Niya shakes her head. “I’ve tried a dozen different things. Nothing works.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mama says, her voice rough. “Even the Circle of Mages hasn’t figured out how to track the snatched.”
“Do you think they’ve tried?”
I glance at her, steadying myself against the wooden stall, exhaustion dragging at me. “They’re the highest group of mages in the realm. Why wouldn’t they?”
She drops her gaze to my feet. “They’d have to care.”
I grunt in agreement, and leave Bean to finish looking after my horse.
Mama and I rejoin the search again near mid-morning, having slept away the intervening hours, only to find it is over.
“It’s no use,” one of the organizers says, her eyes so darkly shadowed they look bruised. “Wherever Seri is, she isn’t here anymore. We’ve sent search parties down all the major roads. We’ll have to put our hope in them.”
I follow Mama to Ani’s house, unable to quite come to grips with this. When we arrive, I slide out of my saddle and lean against Muddle’s solid mass. She turns her head to regard me, one ear permanently crooked, and then leans down to take a taste of my skirt.
Mama calls to me. I free my skirt and trudge toward the door.
“They can’t give up.” Ani’s voice is like a slap in the face. I jerk to a stop as she storms out of the house. She glares at Mama and me, and then strides away.
“Ani!” her mother calls. “Anisela!” She casts a helpless glance at me. I’m already moving as she says, “Don’t let her go off alone, Rae.”
I catch up with Ani at the first crossroad. She stands there looking one way and then the other, as if lost. As if her sister might suddenly show up once more, a smile lighting her bright, chubby six-year-old face, the wind whipping her hair out of the twin braids she always wears, same as my sisters.
“This way?” I suggest, taking a single step in the direction that will lead us out of town. No need to parade her grief before everyone.
After a long moment, Ani dips her head and we fall into step together. She doesn’t say anything, though she adjusts her stride so that I can keep up. We pause when my own house finally comes into view, the red-brown adobe walls rising tall. The house is bounded by a low stone wall, and past it is visible our goat pen, and then the long, low bulk of the stable. Beyond that are the practice rings, with horse fences made of wood carted in from the distant mountains, and then the pastures where most of our herd grazes.
The house lies quiet, Bean and Niya closed up indoors, waiting for news.
“I didn’t believe it could happen to us,” Ani says abruptly. “To my own sister. Did you ever—well, you would never be snatched. But your sisters, do you worry about them?”
I tamp down on the hurt. She is angry and grieving and oblivious to how her words might sound to me, true as they might be. I was never at risk because snatchers take only the able-bodied. I answer quietly, “I worry a great deal.” Especially about Bean. Niya, with her magic, might be able to keep herself safe and win an escape, but Bean has no such advantage.
It’s hard not to fear for every child in Sheltershorn, though the snatchers come so rarely. The last time it happened, three years ago, two children disappeared altogether, went out to play and never returned home. And as with Seri’s disappearance, no amount of searching, not even by the best of our trackers, returned a child to us.
“They found that boy who disappeared once, a few years ago.”
That was ten years ago, when Ani and I were only eight. I remember it well, for none of us were allowed out of our houses for nearly two weeks, until the threat of more children being snatched had waned. The boy escaped of his own accord and was rushed away to stay with relatives far out in the plains. His family followed after him within a week, leaving behind the life they had built here in order to keep their family together.
“He even escaped the Darkness,” Ani says. “He might be able to tell us something.”
The Darkness. A poison the snatchers plant in the blood of those who are snatched. If they manage to escape, it blossoms in their veins and eats away at their minds until they are left a husk of themselves. Our religious scholars have found a treatment, and while it’s effective in destroying the Darkness before it can take a child’s mind, it’s devastating in its own way, for the Blessing washes away the child’s most recent memories.
Most folk find the Blessing worth the resultant loss—what are a few weeks or months of your life compared to your whole mind? But some, like the parents of the boy who escaped, prefer to take the risk to keep their child whole, and instead flee deep into the plains. And sometimes, if they go far enough, fast enough, the Darkness does not touch their child.
“If he could tell us anything helpful, surely we would have heard by now,” I tell Ani, not wanting to give her false hope.
“I can’t give up,” Ani says desperately. “I can’t.”
If only there were some lead, some small clue to grasp at, but we’ve turned up nothing: no one remembers anything unusual, every stranger has been accounted for, every wagon searched. There is not a track out of place, nothing.
“Baba is riding east with two other men, following the road to Lirelei,” she says. “Everyone’s heard that . . . that the children might be sent on from the eastern ports.”
“It’s good that he’s going,” I say. It’s only scraps of rumor and fireside theories that suggest the snatched end up as slaves in other lands. Who sends them, how they are to be discovered—no one knows. But it’s worth the journey if Seri can be found.
Ani turns to me, her face tight with fury. “Children disappear every day. Have you thought about that? Perhaps only every few years for us, but in the cities? Across the whole of this kingdom? It must be a few every day. How can it go on? How is it that no one manages to stop it?”
I shake my head. It had been easy enough, these past years, to pretend the snatchers were not so constant or near a threat—because they rarely strike here, in so small a town as this. But now little Seri is gone, with her laughing eyes and impish sense of humor. Niya asked if the Circle of Mages really has tried to track the snatched, and I wonder if they have. If they care, or the royal court cares, or if anyone at all knows how the snatchers are able to hide every last trace of our children.
Ani takes a deep breath. “What use are the taxes we pay? What use is our king and all his soldiers, if they can’t stop our brothers and sisters from being stolen on the streets?”
“Not much,” I admit. It might be treason to say so, but there is no one to hear us on this empty road. I run my hands over my head, tug at my braids, hating this helplessness. “What can we do, though?”
“I don’t know,” Ani says, and for the first time since she came to our cart asking after Seri, she begins to cry.
I fold her into my arms, holding her tight as she sobs into my shoulder, and promise myself I’ll keep trying. And I won’t give up either.
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