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Exclusive Excerpt: WE HUNT THE FLAME By Hafsah Faizal

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Always books. Never boring.

Looking for an epic fantasy adventure? Check out Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame, and read the exclusive excerpt below!

We Hunt the Flame book coverPeople lived because she killed. People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the sultan. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both Zafira and Nasir are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the sultan on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine. Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt the Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.

People died because he lived. And if that was the only way to carry forward in this life, then so be it.

There had been a particularly strong blizzard in the neighboring caliphate of Demenhur three nights ago, and Sarasin was chillier because of it. The combination of desert heat and the wayward cold rattled Nasir’s bones, yet here he was, far from his home in Sultan’s Keep, the small portion of land from which the sultan ruled Arawiya’s five caliphates.

Nasir’s missions to Sarasin always gave him a sense of nostalgia he never could understand. Though he had never lived here, it was the caliphate of his lineage, and it felt familiar and strange at once.

He came here for one act alone: murder.

Leil, the capital of Sarasin, was crawling with armed men in turbans of azure. Three stood guard at the entrance to the walled city. Billowing sirwal, instead of tighter-fitting pants, hung low across their hips, vain muscled arms glistened bronze. A gust of desert air carried the musky odor of hot sands, along with the chatter of children and their scolding elders.

Nasir studied the sentries and slid from his mare’s back with a heavy sigh. He had no need for a skirmish with a horde of lowborn men.

“Looks like I’ll be taking the long route,” he murmured, rubbing a hand across Afya’s flank. She nickered a reply, and he tethered her beside a sleepy- eyed camel. She was his mother’s horse, named after her favorite of the Six Sisters of Old.

He climbed a stack of aging crates and leaped from awning to awning of the surrounding structures, balancing on jutting stones, his ears still ringing with orders from the Sultan of Arawiya. He likened the sultan’s voice to a snake, softly creeping into his veins and penetrating his heart with venom.

He scaled the wall and leaped onto the nearest rooftop with practiced ease, sidestepping the ornate rug sprawled in its center, jewel-toned cushions strewn to one side.

He vaulted to the next rooftop and swayed when a blade arced down a mere fraction from his face. A girl of about thirteen leaped back with a gasp, dropping one of her twin scimitars to the dusty limestone, her concentrated drill broken. Nasir’s gauntlet blade thrummed, but the last thing he needed was to kill unnecessarily. As if your kills are ever necessary.

He lifted a finger to his lips, but the girl stared slack-jawed at his hooded attire. An assassin’s garb of layered robes in black, etched with fine silver. His fitted sleeves ended in the supple leather of his gauntlets, blades tucked beneath the folds. The traditional gray sash across his middle was shrouded by a broad leather belt housing smaller blades and the sheath of his scimitar. The ensemble had been engineered in Pelusia, the caliphate as
advanced in mechanics as in farming, so there was nothing finer.

“Hashashin?” the girl whispered in a way that promised his presence would be kept secret. A winding cuff resembling a snake encircled her upper arm, blue jewels studding its eyes.

No, Nasir wanted to say to that voice of awe. An assassin lives an
honorable life.

There was a time when a hashashin danced and the wicked perished, merchants rose to power, trades fell to dust. The glint of a blade turned the tides of the world. They had been poets of the kill, once. Honor in their creed.

But that was long before Nasir’s time. He didn’t live. He existed. And no one understood the difference between the two until they ceased to live. The girl grinned. She was too fair for Sarasin standards, with white hair stark against her brow, but it wasn’t uncommon for the snow-brained Demenhune to turn up here, particularly womenfolk. Demenhur’s caliph
was a biased crow who would blame women for old age, if he could.

He swept past her and leaped to the next rooftop, which overlooked houses of tan stone. The streets below were empty, except for the rare camel being pulled along. Dusty lanterns hung from eaves, the glass long ago shattered into the desert.

The rooftops ended and Nasir dropped down to Leil’s sooq. Stalls with rickety legs spread across the expanse, tattered cloth in an array of colors shading goods from the meager sun. The stench of sweat and heat stirred the air. Bare-chested urchins ducked beneath tables and between swaths of fabric as a good-size crowd meandered the stands. Here, the ghostly landscape was alive.

It would be even busier at noon, when the sharp scents of nutmeg and sumac would entwine with meat-filled mutabaq as merchants catered to the workers who mined for coal and minerals in one of the worst places of Arawiya: the Leil Caves.

Now vendors extolled other wares—bolts of fabric in bright colors muted by the dull skies; spices in enough hues to paint papyrus; carved stone platters with designs so intricate, Nasir did not see the point.

He shoved past a gaggle of women and nearly stepped on a salt merchant cross-legged on a rug, sacks of the precious commodity perched around him and a sharp-eyed falcon on his shoulder. The weathered man looked up with a toothy smile, excited at the prospect of a new customer.

Until he saw Nasir’s garb and the gleam in his eyes turned to fear.

Others had begun to take notice. A woman dropped her newly purchased sack of grain. Nasir lowered his head and pressed forward. If he passed close enough, their whispers brushed his ears. If he passed closer still, they would dare to look at him. They knew what Nasir strode for, dressed the way he was.

It was better this way. It was better for Nasir to be as evil as Sultan Ghameq in their eyes. Because in many ways, he was. Maybe even worse. Still, the people of Sarasin had become hardened to the life that grew more desolate by the day. Their caliph had just been murdered, their lands wrongfully seized by their own sultan. Yet no one seemed any more disturbed than they had been before.

Stand up, he ordered them in his head. Defy. Fight.

Self-derision tore a sound from his chest. Not even you defy the sultan.

And the ones who dared to raise their heads: Nasir killed.

He finally reached the alley at the end of the sooq. A girl blinked wide gray eyes and limped into the shadows, dust stirring in her wake. Sand qit ducked into the rubble, paws silent, tails curling. Ragged papyrus covered the crumbling stone walls, lathered with scrawling lines of poetry
from some romantic fool with too much hope in his hands.

His mother used to say that a person without hope was a body without a soul. It was the loss of the Sisters nearly a century ago that had left the people this way, bereft of the magic Arawiya depended on. And here, where the sand was soot and the sky was forever dusk, there was no hope for anyone, especially Nasir.

A guard stepped from the shadows, sand scraping beneath his boots. Nasir stared down his drawn sword with cool disinterest.

“Halt,” the guard said, puffing out his chest and, subsequently, his gut.
Where do these fools find so much food?

“A bit too late for that,” Nasir said smoothly. He flicked his wrist and extended his gauntlet blade.

“I said, halt,” the guard repeated. He stood tall, a little too new and eager for a world that would set him crooked soon enough.

The guard’s eyes bulged. “No! Wait. I have a sister—”

Nasir pivoted a full turn to avoid the guard’s sword and slashed his blade across the man’s neck. He dragged the gurgling corpse to the shadows before straightening his robes and returning to the alley, hands sliding over the gritty stone wall to find a hold. I’ll be an old man by the end of this.

He scaled the wall to the rooftops north of the sooq, vaulting from terrace to rooftop until he reached the most extravagant limestone con- struction of the city, taller than the rest. The prestigious quarters of Dar al-Fawda. The owners of the camel race were one of the finer groups of notoriety the dead caliph had turned a blind eye upon.

Lattice screens and lush cushions sprawled across the creamy stone in soft sighs of color. A dallah pot and a set of handleless cups lay to the side, stained with dark rings. Strewn sheets and silken shawls littered the expanse. He knew what occurred on these rooftops, and he was glad for his timing.

He pushed aside a pile of silken cushions and crouched at the roof’s edge. The gray skies told nothing of the time of day, but below, the wadi where the race would take place was beginning to attract crowds—Sarasins, with dark hair, olive skin, and rueful eyes. His people.

Foolish people, come to empty their coffers with damning bets placed upon camels. He made a dismissive sound and looked to the tents beyond.

Any moment now.

Nasir reached into the folds of his clothes for the sweet he had saved from the night before, but his fingers touched the cool surface of a disc. He brushed his thumb over the camel-bone mosaic adorning the flat circle. Inside, a sundial lay dull with age and veins of turquoise patina, the glass long since cracked. It had once gleamed in the palm of a sultana, and he thought—

These were the small ways in which he could feel like the human he was born as. A leftover cake saved for later. An aging sundial from moments past.

Where was that damned boy? Camels were being pulled forward, and Nasir needed to be down there before the crowds became impenetrable. He drummed his fingers on the stone, coating his fingers in creamy dust.

I am going to rip his—

The trapdoor creaked open and Nasir turned as a boy with knobby elbows climbed onto the roof. A sand qit meowed and curled around the child’s dirty feet.

Nasir lifted an eyebrow. “You took your time.”

“I—I’m sorry. I couldn’t get away from Effendi Fawda.” The page boy’s brown skin was smeared with dirt. The owner of Dar al-Fawda was no respectable one, but if the boy wanted to respect him with the title of effendi, Nasir did not care.

“Everything is ready for you,” the boy said, as if he had been given a tremendous task other than telling Nasir where to find the man he sought. Nasir liked that the boy wasn’t afraid to speak to him. Afraid of him? Most likely. But not afraid to speak to him.

Nasir played along with a small nod. “You have my shukur.”

At his thanks, the boy looked as surprised as Nasir felt, and before his pride could stop him, Nasir held out the date cake. A gasp wheezed past the boy’s chapped lips and he reached with careful fingers, unfolding the wax sheet with awestruck features. He licked the sugar from his dirty fingers and Nasir’s stomach clenched.

All he ever saw were blood, tears, and darkness. The hope in the boy’s eyes, the dirt on his face, the jutting of his bones—

Nasir blinked at the boy’s poise. He and “favor” never sat in the same sentence.

“The children slaved to the races,” he ventured. “Can you free them?”

Nasir looked to the wadi, to the children. His voice was flat, uncaring. “If they don’t die in the races, they’re bound to die elsewhere.”

“You don’t mean that,” the boy said after a long pause, and

Nasir was surprised to find anger aflame in his dark eyes. Let it burn, boy.

“Salvation is for foolish heroes who will never exist. Help yourself and leave the rest.”

It was advice Nasir should have followed years ago. He turned without another word and dropped from the rooftop, swiftly lowering himself to the ground.

Dar al-Fawda guards in sirwal and black turbans loitered nearby. The higher-ups wore plain, ankle-length thobes and sported thick mustaches as they shuffled past. Nasir could never understand the horrid fashion of a mustache without a beard, but these men believed the bigger the better.

He waited in the shadows of a date palm and, head low, slipped into a group of drunkards on their way to the race. They passed bookies on short stools and people cheering for their bets, damning their meager earnings for the thrill of a short-lived gamble.

More camels ambled into the wadi. Children, too, dressed in nothing but dusty sirwal. Nasir’s fingers twitched when a man used a whip on a boy whose cheeks streamed with tears as he rubbed an already reddening shoulder, eyes murderous.

Only in Sarasin could vengeance start so young.

Very few protested the use of children in the races, for the lighter the rider the faster the camel, and so the atrocity carried on. Nasir’s blood burned black, but he stilled his fingers.

Monsters bore no duty to the innocent.

He reached the tents.

The few he peered inside were empty. They held traditional majlis seating, with cushions spread out across the floor for private negotiations or more intimate happenings. The page boy’s marker, a red shawl pinned beneath a stone, lay at the seventh tent as promised.

Nasir dropped his hand to the scimitar at his side.

The mark could be young or near death. He could have children who would stare into his lifeless eyes and scream for a soul that would never return.

He’s a name. A scrap of papyrus, rolled and shoved into Nasir’s pocket. He slipped inside. The beige walls of the tent dressed the place with forlorn, wan light that stole through tears in the fabric and illuminated swirls of dust. Scrolls and books were scattered across the carpet that covered the sand, and a gray-haired man was bent over them, scribing by lantern.

The shouts and cheers of the crowd grew louder as the races began, echoing with the grunts of camels and the cries of the children upon them. The man rubbed his beard, murmuring to himself.

Nasir used to wonder why he stopped feeling sorrow for the people he was sent to slay. At some point, his heart had ceased to register the monstrosity of his deeds, and it had nothing to do with the darkness tainting the lands.

No, it was his own doing.

He was turning his heart black, no one else.

Nasir paused at the man’s calm demeanor and considered killing him without his knowledge. But amid the scrolls he spotted titles written in the ancient tongue of Safaitic—even an account of the deceased Lion of the Night, a man of two bloods who had set his mind upon Arawiya’s throne, doling death in his wake during the horrific Black Massacre.

He pressed his foot deeper into the sand, crunching it beneath his boot.

The man looked up. “Ah, you have come. It took you long enough to find me.”

Irritation stirred in Nasir’s chest. It wasn’t always that his marks spoke to him, that they didn’t fight him. “I am no hunter. I kill when ordered.”

The man smiled. “Right you are, hashashin. But once the head falls, the rest is destined to follow. You tore down our caliph, and as his advisor by name, I have been waiting for you since.”

A warmth filled the man’s eyes, and Nasir darted a wary glance behind, only to realize it was directed at him. Like the page boy’s gratitude at the rooftop. But this, this was a hundred times worse.

No one should show kindness to their murderer.

“Owais Khit,” Nasir pronounced quietly. The name in his pocket. His voice held a sense of finality, and bitter hatred sank fangs into his heart.

Owais was here for the children of the races, rallying to free them. It was unfortunate that he had another agenda, too. One that had nothing to do with the dead caliph and that made Nasir curious, as treasonous as it was. For in Arawiya, strength meant death, unless it was in allegiance to the sultan.

The man dipped his head. “Him I am. Make it quick, but know that this will not end with me.”

“You speak of treason. Your very work is treason.” Nasir should not have indulged him. He should have killed him before he had glimpsed the brown of the man’s eyes and curiosity got the best of him. What treason was there in the study of history?

“The people remain silent out of the fear that taxes may increase. The peace is temporarily ensured—for what? My work was merely unearthing the reason for change. For why a tyrant emerged in place of our good sultan. Our sultana would not have brought him into the fold if he were so dark a man. Something stirs in the shadows, boy. Soon, death will be the least
of our horrors.” Owais lifted his chin, exposing his wizened neck. “Be swift. Know that my work will continue through others. Perhaps, one day, it will continue through you, and Arawiya will return to the splendor it once was.”

Impossible, for a boy whose hands were steeped in blood. Whose heart was as dark as the one Owais sought to rectify. Whatever this man and his people were trying to accomplish, it would live a short life. Their numbers dwindled with each passing day—Nasir ensured it.

His scimitar sang as he pulled it free. Owais exhaled and wound his turban around his head, eyes flashing in the glint of the blade, a brilliant  chestnut hidden beneath the folds of aging skin. A smile curved the man’s lips once more, and Nasir thought of the sultan passing him the fold of papyrus. He thought of Owais’s warning and realized the absurdity of killing a man for the mere act of reading.

But he never left a job unfinished.

There was a hitch in the man’s breath when the metal touched his skin. One last spike of emotion before Nasir shifted his arm and blood oozed free. Somewhere, children were losing their father. Grandchildren were losing their greatest love.

He pulled a feather from the folds of his robes and touched it to the blood. It settled on the dead man’s chest, its black vane tipped glimmering red.

Anyone who saw it would know Owais’s killer. They would know vengeance was impossible.

Then Nasir filled his lungs with the familiar stench of blood, and left. He pinned the flap open so that the people would know.

It was the one lenience he could leave them—a marker to help them bury the dead. The people would never consider Nasir an ally, but in that moment he almost felt like they could.

They were right to hate him, for Nasir had killed more than he could count. It used to matter, before. Now it was nothing more than a swipe of his sword. Another felled soul.

To the people, he was not Nasir Ghameq, crown prince of Arawiya, no. He was the purger of life.

The Prince of Death.

Text copyright © 2019 by Hafsah Faizal. Used by permission of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.