Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Warriors Ride Phoenixes in Nicki Pau Preto's Heart of Flames

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Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Warriors Ride Phoenixes in Nicki Pau Preto's <i>Heart of Flames</i>

Nicki Pau Preto’s debut novel, Crown of Feathers, introduced a thrilling a fantasy empire where warriors ride phoenixes into battle. It was one of the best Young Adult novels of February, and we can’t wait to see how the adventure continues in the sequel, Heart of Flames.

Heart of Flames picks up where the first book left off (spoilers for Crown of Feathers ahead), as Veronyka and her crew are thrown into the heated war. Here’s the scoop on the sequel from the publisher:

The world is balanced on the edge of a knife, and war is almost certain between the empire and the Phoenix Riders. Veronyka finally got her wish to join the Riders, but while she’s supposed to be in training, all she really wants to do is fly out to defend the villages of Pyra from the advancing empire. Tristan has been promoted to Master Rider, but he has very different ideas about the best way to protect their people than his father, the commander. Sev has been sent to spy on the empire, but maintaining his cover may force him to fight on the wrong side of the war. And Veronyka’s sister, Val, is determined to regain the empire she lost—even if it means inciting the war herself.

As tensions reach a boiling point, the characters all find themselves drawn together into a fight that will shape the course of the empire—and determine the future of the Phoenix Riders. Each must decide how far they’re willing to go—and what they’re willing to lose in the process.

You’ll have to wait until February 2020 for Simon Pulse to release the novel, but you can read an exclusive excerpt today! You can also get a first look at the cover, which was designed by Tiara Iandiorio and illustrated by Kekai Kotaki (the artist responsible for the gorgeous Crown of Feathers cover).

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We’ve also got the full book jacket below, which just begs to be a poster (you can click on it to enlarge it):

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Love the excerpt below? Then you’ll want to pre-order the book here. And get excited, because the final novel in Pau Preto’s trilogy will drop in 2021.

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Chapter 1: Veronyka

Veronyka kicked as hard as she could at Tristan’s face.

They were in the training yard, and the evening sun was casting purple shadows across the stronghold walls, setting the golden phoenix statue atop the temple ablaze with light.

The dinner bell had rung, and the rest of the apprentices and masters had finished their training for the day. Those who remained were packing up and putting away practice weapons or watching idly as Veronyka and Tristan circled each other.

They were sparring, and though Veronyka hated the attention, she’d told Tristan she wouldn’t quit for the day until she’d beaten him once. So far, she was zero for five, and she was getting tired.

Tristan dodged her kick as easily as he’d dodged all the others, stepping out of range while Veronyka stalked after him.

“Why don’t we pick this up tomorrow?” he asked, panting slightly. Only just slightly. Meanwhile, Veronyka was a sweating, gasping mess.

She wanted to answer him—no, they couldn’t wait until tomorrow. The final details from the attack on the Eyrie had trickled in over the past few weeks, putting numbers and names to the deaths, damages…and the missing.

And this was just the start.

Things were going to get worse before they got better; the empire wouldn’t forget them after such a narrow defeat, and Veronyka had to be ready. She’d been practicing as hard as she could, pushing herself in flying and weapons and yes, combat. It was her weakest skill and therefore required the most effort and attention.

Veronyka had to make sure that when the empire returned—when the next battle was fought—she wouldn’t be sidelined. And the only way to guarantee that didn’t happen was to become a Master Rider. To pass the very tests Tristan had struggled with weeks before—and had trained months to conquer.

Despite her skill in flying and her powerful animal magic, Veronyka was so far behind in combat, so utterly out of her element, that it was all she could do to remain on her feet.

But she wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t.

In response to Tristan’s offer to quit for the day, Veronyka tightened her mental walls and kicked again.

Because it wasn’t just the combat that had Veronyka struggling. She couldn’t fight Tristan like she could the others, because while her shadow magic was always reaching for minds and hearts, when it came to Tristan, it was like water being sucked down a whirlpool. She had to actively resist it, aware that every touch, every moment of eye contact, might be the thing that broke them both wide open. It was like fighting two opponents at once.

Tristan shook his head with a slight smirk, leaping effortlessly out of reach.

Veronyka swallowed, her throat dry as the sand under her feet, and tried to focus.

For weeks now, the combat lessons had been her worst, the things she dreaded most of all. There was no one for her to match up with, no one the same size and skill level. So she took a constant beating. Her only advantage was her speed and the fact that she was a small target.

She was also unpredictable. Not on purpose, but from lack of expertise. Occasionally, it worked in her favor, catching her opponents off guard.

Everyone except for Tristan. When they sparred, sometimes it felt like he was the one with shadow magic. He anticipated her moves so easily, was able to counterstrike flawlessly, and adapted almost instantly to everything she threw at him.

Of course, if she really wanted to win, she could open her mind to him and anticipate his every thought and movement. Like she had during the attack on the Eyrie. Their connection had been heady and powerful, but then they’d been working together to achieve a goal. She’d also lost consciousness when she’d let their bond get away from her outside the breeding enclosure the day before that.

Veronyka shook her head. It was too dangerous. The more she opened herself to him, the more Veronyka opened herself to Val—and that was the last thing she needed right now.

Veronyka just had to get one win under her belt for the day, one win so she could go to dinner with her head held high.

Most fights ended by a person getting hit with a pin or hold, taking too much damage to continue, or being shoved from the ring. So far, Tristan had managed to pin her three times and knock her out of the chalk line the other two.

As he regained his balance across the ring, Veronyka studied him.

Underneath the padding he wore his usual training gear, the fitted tunic and worn leather as much a part of him as his curling brown hair and dimpled smile. There was a difference in him, though, a sense of surety that wasn’t there before. The battle for the Eyrie had changed him—it had changed them all—and he seemed more confident in himself now, though the only difference in his outward appearance was a strip of red-dyed leather that wrapped around his bicep, indicating his position as a patrol leader, and a fine white scar that split his bottom lip—a souvenir from the attack.

“Come on, Tristan,” called Anders from the sidelines, grinning widely. “Put this apprentice in her place.”

The others laughed and jeered, and Tristan’s jaw clenched. He’d never been great at handling teasing, and since Anders’ taunt was technically directed at her, Tristan was taking it even worse than usual.

Veronyka knew the words were meant in fun. Anders and Tristan had only recently been elevated from apprentices, after all, but there were others who she suspected enjoyed the heckling with more malice. Latham, another apprentice-turned-Master Rider, smirked from just behind Anders, a coldly amused glint in his eye, and Fallon’s second-in-command, Darius, whispered behind his hand into his patrol leader’s ear.

Many of them had been distant toward her ever since she revealed the fact that she was Veronyka, not Nyk, and she could tell they were suspicious of her closeness with Tristan. Even now…the masters rarely trained with the apprentices—at least not like this, one-on-one—but Tristan was helping Veronyka because she’d asked him when her lessons were done. The others saw it as favoritism, as special treatment. Maybe even something more.

“Shut it, Anders,” Tristan practically growled, tossing his sweat-soaked hair off his forehead in agitation.

“Or stuff it at dinner,” Veronyka piped in, trying to defuse the situation. Anders guffawed, but he didn’t leave. Nobody did.

Veronyka and Tristan had sparred together often and knew each other’s habits and tendencies probably better than they knew their own. Tristan was a careful fighter, observant and thoughtful about his attacks, learning his opponent before he made a move. But he could be baited. Anders had just proven that.

If Tristan could be lured into making a mistake, Veronyka might be able to squeak out of this with a win.

Still, she hesitated. While Tristan was calm and disciplined, Veronyka was wild and impatient—and he knew it. It was usually her fault she lost; Tristan just watched and waited for her to mess up, then capitalized on whatever opening or vulnerability she presented. But in order to bait him, she had to make a move.

Because of her short height, Veronyka favored kicks over punches, her legs having a farther reach than her arms. Skirting around him and angling her body, Veronyka prepared for a left kick to Tristan’s ribs. She avoided his eyes—it was the surest way to open a shadow magic connection—and kept her gaze on Tristan’s upper body, the angle of his shoulders and the position of his hands, held loosely at his sides.

As soon as her knees bent and her foot left the ground, Tristan’s muscles tensed—his right arm tightening, preparing to block the blow, while his shoulders turned, angling his body away from her.

But Veronyka didn’t kick. At least, not from her feet. She dropped into a crouch at the last second and swung out her left foot with a kick aimed at Tristan’s legs, not his torso.

She glanced up in time to see his eyes bug out and his body twist as he tried to adapt.

Veronyka’s foot struck Tristan’s calf, and the crowd that surrounded them oohed as his leg was taken out from underneath him.

But rather than falling backward out of the circle—her true goal—or collapsing onto his side, Tristan fell forward.

Onto her.

She’d only managed to clip one of his legs, and as he stumbled toward her, her only choice was to roll to the side.

She managed to miss his impact with the ground by inches, but she was defenseless as she tried to get away.

He leapt onto Veronyka’s exposed back, slipping his arms around her middle and across her chest. Hands locked together, he gave a hard pull, drawing them both backward into the sand. In the blink of an eye he had turned her attack into his dominant position. As he lay on his back with Veronyka pinned against his chest, Tristan was a heartbeat away from pressing his forearm against her windpipe in a choke hold. She scrambled to the side, making the angle more difficult, but Tristan took the new opportunity she presented by throwing his leg over her body and climbing on top of her.

Veronyka squirmed, kicking and taking wild swings at his head, forcing him to duck and cover, but he still managed to get into position, his thighs on either side of her hips as he straddled her.

Being close like this caused Veronyka’s mental barriers against him to shake and tremble. Her magic wanted him, reached for him often, seeking any excuse to strengthen their link. There were certain triggers—eye contact, touch, and sensory details like smell and sound—that weakened her walls. Add them all together, and it was an assault her mind couldn’t withstand.

He lowered his head toward her chest, making it impossible for her to strike him as he got inside her guard. He was adjusting his position, regaining his balance, her wildly flailing legs no longer unseating him.

His breath rang in her ears, his chest rising and falling and pressing against her own. His damp tunic and sweat-curled hair smelled of soap and salt and sunshine—smelled of Tristan—and Veronyka tried her best to jerk away. But he was holding her fast, and when she lifted her face and their eyes met, the stones of her mental walls came crumbling down.

The link between them burst open, as swift and certain as river water cascading through a dam. Her magic surged, and her mind filled with his thoughts, so loud and clear that they drowned her own.

He was aware of her in the same way she was aware of him. Her smell, her feel—all of it put Tristan on high alert, but not for the same reasons his presence rattled her. Well, not entirely. It wasn’t just shadow magic she protected against, wasn’t just a mental connection she feared.

Heedless of the consequences, Veronyka shoved at Tristan’s chest, twisting and squirming—panicked and desperate for escape.

But her recklessness made her vulnerable, as she’d known it would. She realized with frustration that she’d exposed herself to an arm lock, and her breath hitched as she waited for Tristan to seize the chance. All he had to do was shift his weight, reposition himself so they were perpendicular to each other, then grab her wrist and pull against his chest, hyperextending the elbow. A simple move; a second’s work.

Only, he didn’t.

Tristan was frozen, and Veronyka frowned at him a moment before bucking her hips, sending him off-balance and slipping to the side. She squirmed out from underneath him and turned around, watching as he got slowly to his feet.

Silence had descended over the training yard, heavy with confusion. Tristan had let her go, had let the chance to pin her pass him by. He’d even let her get back to her feet.

He was panting now, sand stuck to the sweat coating his forearms and legs.

Their eyes met again, but she didn’t need their mental connection to confirm her suspicions.

He’d wanted to shelter her from the pain and humiliation of losing in front of all the others.

He’d wanted to protect her.

It reminded her of when he’d tried to keep her out of the fighting at the Eyrie; it reminded her of Commander Cassian, keeping the Riders locked up safe while the world around them fell apart. Worst of all, it made her think of Val, always supposedly “protecting” her, so thoroughly and so fiercely that Val wound up hurting Veronyka far worse than if she’d just let Veronyka know the truth, if she’d just treated her as an equal.

Anders and the others were watching, and there was no way they’d missed his hesitation. Tristan had gone easy on her, and they all knew it.

With something like a snarl, Veronyka lunged for Tristan. He had no choice not to fight her now, no opportunity to waver.

He absorbed her attack, using her momentum against her. Twisting his upper body—and hers along with it—he threw her over his hip, sending her flat on her back into the sand.

The wind was knocked from her lungs, and as she struggled to her feet, she saw the chalk line underneath her.

She’d been tossed from the ring. Veronyka let her head fall back to the ground, her eyes squeezed shut.

Zero for six.

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