At last!!! We are only ONE WEEK away from Jen Castleberry's release of A WILD AND UNREMARKABLE THING!!!
Don't forget to pre-order your copy! (AWAUT will also be available in gorgeous paperback and hardcover!!) 😍😍😍😍😍😍
To celebrate, we thought we'd share a sneak-peak of the Prologue and Chapter One here:
The Fire Scale flies low over Ithil. Its body is the breadth of a circus tent. Its breast is striped by veins as broad as the boughs of a mighty oak. Its roar is like the howl of an angry wind.
It gleams in the starlight. Its scales are ruby-red. No wonder just one of them is worth its weight in gold, and there must be thousands. They sparkle, catching the glow of lamps and torches below - flat, fluttering discs that ripple against its skin like a scarlet coat of suns.
Its leathery wings beat, once, twice, like a tribal drum, like a thunderclap, and out of its yawning mouth, a blaze erupts, engulfing everything.
One breath, and Ithil is black as ash. Ithil, gloating Ithil, built of white sandstone. Built by the hands and backs of scholars.
One breath. Libraries and the proud, columned summer homes of wealthy merchants are set alight. Every inch of lush, green earth in the airy market square is grit and gravel in an instant.
Screams rise up like a symphony, sobs and the worst swears men can muster. Just outside of the town gates, in a field not far enough away for anyone’s liking, crystal champagne glasses fall into the grass. Girls in their finest gowns faint or flee, and some are trampled underfoot.
In the heart of Ithil, beneath a brightly embroidered tarp, drunks and costumed children lie dead or dying. They make groaning prayers as they bleed and burn, mouths flush with the rose-cobbled street.
One, two. The Fire Scale is high above the burning town. It gapes, and smacks its lips. Embers teeter over its tongue and tip out between its wide-gapped fangs.
One, two. The Fire Scale breaks through the clouds and inky phantoms swirl in its wake. Some Ithites watch its yellow talons shove aside the stars.
So quick, it came, it left. A breath. A fast-ascend, and it is gone.
And Ithil…Ithil is on fire.
Cody doesn’t start. She does not fly upright as the dream recedes. She lies perfectly still, except for her unbound chest, which heaves, and her throat, which lobs as it swallows a sob.
She might have tossed, or screamed out in her sleep, or even mumbled and woken her father. Now she doesn’t make a sound. She listens for his footsteps, heavy and quick, but the house is as quiet as death.
She’s had this dream before. Once, she called it a memory, but now…now she wonders if the scales were really so red, if the beast’s one eye was as bright and sharp as the sun. If its other eye was really missing, gouged out by a Lair Town Champion, the way legend says it was.
Maybe the beast had two eyes, after all. Maybe it saw her, tripping over her lace-hemmed skirt. Maybe it knew how she cowered, black with soot, in the butcher’s fireplace.
She hasn’t seen a Fire Scale in fifteen years, and she’s heard so many tales since the scorching of Ithil—fantastic tales. She doesn’t know what is really memory anymore, except that the Fire Scale came. It came and ruined Ithil. It made the whole town burn.
It made her a boy.
Cody doesn’t remember anything before the last Emerging, when the Fire Scale scorched Ithil. But after - she remembers everything, everything, that came after.
She closes her eyes now, and thinks she’ll have another hour of sleep. Dawn isn’t so near. But when she tries to dream, she remembers instead:
A pair of feet. Her feet. Pudgy, cinnamon toes. A fan of faint, burnt umber hair, like a feathery bangle, over each one of her ankles.
Her father, tipping her head forward, his hand like shaved ice, cold and callous on the back of her neck.
Her father, sheering off her shining, raven curls with a switchblade.
Watching her hair fall away, each lock a tightly coiled ribbon of black.
Her father scolding her.
Gods, she remembers every tight-lipped swear. Every promise:
“A lash for every tear.”
A swallow. A blink. A wobbling room. And fast, a puddle between her feet.
A shorn, boyish reflection gazing out of her tears.
And a scream.
Her next memory is of the cane.
Cody opens her eyes – nineteen-year-old Cody. Not Cayda, the little girl her father cuddled and coddled and loved. “You’ll slay a Fire Scale one day,” her father said before he sliced away her onyx mane. “A girl shouldn’t do it. A girl would never get to keep her prize.”
His words were apt.
His instruction indisputable.
He cut her hair close to the scalp. He dressed her in trousers and called her Cody. And when she was sixteen, her mother bound her breast and warned her not to linger long in front of mirrors after a bath.
Cody is a boy, on the outside at least, though she is slender and soft of cheek. She didn’t fill out the way her father hoped she would, no matter how much he made her run and climb and swing a sword.
Sometimes, when her father is gone to the neighboring towns for wares, Cody does stand in front of the mirror too long. She strips naked and admires herself in the dingy glass. She wishes, wishes, she could be Cayda again.
A selfish wish. She can’t say it out loud, else she will have the cane. And she shouldn’t wish it at all. Her younger sisters have both brought home coin from the brothel. Her mother’s chest – how it boasted and bulged once! – is concave. The house is always black with filth. The cupboards are always bare. A Fire Scale will set everything right, if Cody can kill it.
Cody, not Cayda.
The town keeps Cody’s secret. Most have forgotten it by now, she thinks. Most call her a boy and believe that she is one. If anyone doubts…well, no one picks a fight with her father.
He says his eldest child is a boy.
So she is.
Cody is running. Running against the heat. Running against the sun. The day is early, but it’s sweltering at the peak of summer. She blinks, and wouldn’t be surprised to find herself plunging forward into a blaze of Fire Scale breath.
She has nothing but porridge in her belly, but she’s not slowed by hunger pangs. She’s too used to hunger. It doesn’t make her dizzy anymore, or leech her sun-stained face. No, she is swift.
Her feet know this road. Her father won’t meet her at the end of it; what an easy sprint that would be! Once, when she was small, she only had to run as far as the butcher shop. Every week for fifteen years, her father has made her run farther, till all of Ithil was too small. Till she didn’t cry, or vomit, anymore.
He waits for her now, beyond the gates of Ithil, at the edge of the surrounding wood, resting his horse, counting the minutes that pass. He won’t let her dally long when she arrives. He won’t let her ride back into Ithil with him. She’ll have to run again. But she doesn’t think of that now.
Now, she thinks of her feet - bare, calloused feet. Feet that know the town grid as well as a pair of hands may know a harp. She thinks of her legs - hard, lithe, launching her forward. She is faster than she was yesterday. She is sure.
She breathes, even and slow, and counts the minutes, too. She’ll let her father make his report first, and won’t argue if he brandishes his cane. Sometimes, if she’s too fast, he lies. So she’ll be just fast enough. Just a little bit faster than yesterday.
She can’t be too slow, either, else he’ll whack her well. And if he’s in a foul mood, he may whack her for no reason at all.
She winces. He has been in a foul mood these past months. The last rungs of her spine are yellow and black with bruises. Even her mother has dared to say, softly, that he likes his cane too much. But Cody knows why.
The next Emerging approaches. The Fire Scales will take to the skies, as they do every fifteenth year, breathing fire, stomping cities to dust, mating in flight - in full, unabashed view.
Cody stumbles, and loses three seconds. She swears. Three seconds and a half. She rights her feet. Breathe in, she says. Breathe out. Don’t think about the Fire Scales.
All around her, the town is in disrepair. Has been in disrepair for fifteen years. No money comes in anymore. This town was for vacationers once; it subsisted on the pockets of wealthy travelers, even royalty. It has no industry of its own, and neighboring towns and tribes, even faraway cities, are peppered now with deserting Ithites.
Her father stayed in Ithil after the scorching. The taverns re-opened, and the brothels, the butcher shops. The worst parts of Ithil stayed, and the worst people.
Once, the aroma of sweetbread swirled through the streets. Now the bakeries are gone, and there are only dingy, soiled, sweating smells, like the armpits of pigs.
The library is nothing but the crumbling, mortar stumps of pillars and columns. Every singed shred of paper has blown away.
The boutiques are long-since looted, stripped clean. The market’s a shanty town. There are no green, flowering things. No window displays. No pretty dresses. No prettiness at all.
Once, Ithil was a pretty town. Now, it’s an eyesore.
Cody darts through an ally between two leather shops. The spongy, rotting smell of stripped flesh coats her nostrils and she wrinkles her nose. The stench is as putrid as anything in Ithil, but it can't undo the measured rhythm of her breath. In and out. In and out. One long breath after another.
There’s a shorter route to the wood where her father will be waiting, but the day is so hot. The roofs overhead seal out the sun, a quick, stolen moment of shade, but Cody will pay for it.
Too fast, or exactly fast enough, she’s out of the alley. The sun strikes her face like a frying pan fresh off the stove and popping with oil.
A high, iron fence stands ahead, boxing in the town. The Fire Scale didn’t damage it, not entirely. There are places where the bars are crumpled or poorly patched, low places that are easy to hop over. But she’ll lose too much time, darting left or right for them, now she’s gone the long route through the alley. So she blasts straight ahead, toward the highest stretch of fence, and launches herself forward like a cricket.
She catches the bars six feet high, and laughs out loud - six feet is a record, to be sure. But there’s still fence overhead.
She yanks herself up, fist over fist, her coarse palms burning against the sunbaked bars. She swings her legs over the weathered heads of iron spikes. One nips at her trousers and tears the seam wide open as she drops to the ground on the opposite side.
Cody groans. Her father will notice the tear, and her sisters will have to mend it – she’s so lousy with a needle and thread. But she can't worry about that now.
She lets the torn flaps of her pant leg slap together in the wind as she runs, runs, runs, runs. Harder, harder harder. Away from Ithil, into the trees.
Overhead, the yellow morning sky is replaced by canopy. Black pine scents the air, and Cody breathes deep – a fast luxury.
She finds the beaten path. Her feet remember every root, every slithering slip of a river, and she skips, she leaps, she runs and runs and runs.
Her skin is slick with sweat when she skids to a halt at the edge of the wood. Her father’s dusty mare is tethered to a tree. She whips her head back and forth, but she can't spot him anywhere.
She swears. He could be hidden, watching her. A new game. All she wants is to double over, to huff and heave and dunk her hot, red face in the nearest river. But if her father is watching…
She won’t do it. Her father hasn’t given her permission to rest. So she won’t rest. Not yet.
Not until he says so.