Excerpt Alert: Dive Into CHAOS & FLAME
From New York Times bestselling author Justina Ireland and Tessa Gratton comes the first book in a ferocious YA fantasy duology featuring ancient magic, warring factions, and a romance between the two people in the world with the most cause to hate one another. Get ready for Chaos & Flame!
Scroll down to read a sneak peek. And remember to grab your copy here!
The first time the scion of House Dragon painted the eyeless girl, he was only six years old. She was nothing but a face shaped with finger smears of brown, a darker crooked line that might’ve been a sad smile, and huge, swirling black holes where her eyes should be.
“I don’t know how to save her,” he said to his mother when he presented the art to her.
His mother accepted the soft parchment, doing her best to hide the horror she felt at the red-rimmed, furious eyeholes in her son’s painting. Casually, she asked, “Why is she in danger?”
“I don’t know.”
“What happened to her eyes?”
“Nothing yet.” The little boy shrugged.
Though the Dragon consort asked a few more delicate questions, he could give her no answers. But he drew the eyeless girl again and again, and told his nurse about her, and his aunt, and his father eventually. That was a mistake, because he was far too old for imaginary friends, his father growled. The consort promised her husband, the Dragon regent, it was only childish play, and their son would grow out of it.
Better an imaginary friend, she thought, than the truth she suspected deep in her heart: her son had been gifted with a boon, but it was a prophetic one, and prophecy always, always drove the wielder mad.
The people of Pyrlanum would never accept a regent with such a wild boon, and to shield her eldest son, the consort extracted a promise from him to stop talking about the girl, and certainly to stop painting her. He must never paint anything from a dream or vision. It was dangerous. The young scion agreed, thrilled to have such an illicit thing binding him with his mother.
And he kept his promise for two entire years, until his mother was murdered.
The day she died, the consort and the scion were pruning in their private garden. She injured herself on a few reckless roses, and when she gasped, the scion saw a flash of vision, in strokes of vivid paint: a fan of dark blue skirts against the harsh black-and-white checkered floor of his mother’s solar, golden sunlight smeared in streaks, and a kiss of crimson splattered at her mouth and in her hair. A spilled cup near her hand, leaking sickly green.
It would have been a beautiful painting, had he been allowed to create it.
But the scion had learned his lesson well. His boon was a curse and he did not say or do anything.
Later, when his mother lay dead on the marble floor, the boy realized this was not a game, not a thrilling secret: it was a matter of life and death. Had he been braver, he might have saved his mother from the poison in that cup.
He wailed and clawed at his hair until his aunt, his mother’s sister, gathered him up in her arms. “What happened, little dragon, who did this?”
The scion hugged her neck so tightly. “Don’t tell anyone,” he begged. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t save her, I didn’t even try! I’m sorry! Please.”
“Hush, hush, it’s all right.”
“I didn’t save her,” he whispered, sobbing. “I have to save her.”
“It’s too late, little dragon,” his aunt murmured.
“No,” he said again and again. He threw himself away from his aunt and ran to his rooms. Found chalk and old cracked paint pots and ripped paper out of books in a tantrum. The scion drew and drew, scrawling images of that eyeless girl. He refused food, he refused his father and his baby brother, he refused everything but paint, and finally locked the door, screaming to be left alone unless anybody was going to help.
When his aunt had the door kicked in, the scion’s room was a disaster of paintings and spilled color. Wasted effort, childish, ugly pictures. Blurs and shapes that looked like nothing but the impressions of landscapes or people, castles and gardens and ships and massive, ancient creatures the Houses called their empyreals. A figure of fire, broad winged and gorgeous. The eyeless girl. His aunt recognized the monsters, if not the girl. Dragon, gryphon, barghest, sphinx, cockatrice, kraken. And the First Phoenix.
But the scion tore the phoenix painting down the middle and threw a heavy book at his aunt. “Bring me a master, to show me how it’s done,” he cried. “I have to find her. It’s soon.”
“What is soon?” asked his aunt. She put her arm around him. “Who is she?”
“You’ll see,” the young scion said, pulling away.
While the young scion lost himself in painting dreams, Pyrlanum descended into violence. House Dragon accused House Sphinx of murdering their beloved consort. The grief-stricken Dragon regent demanded retribution, forcing all the great Houses to choose sides, and reviving the House Wars after more than twenty years of peace.
Bloodshed consumed the land, and the young scion found he could not save the eyeless girl.
“It’s too late,” he whispered to the disaster of art surrounding him, the night his father-leagues away-massacred the entire family line of House Sphinx.
The new House War raged on for years, and instead of the eyeless girl, the scion painted darkness. Thick black streaks, chunky peaks of gray and angry blue, the underlying red-red-red, heartbeat red, of sunlit memories behind tight-shut eyes. A bruise of purple over green-black, ocean-black, midnight, moonless black.
When his baby brother asked what he painted, the scion only hissed at him, chasing him from the room.
House Dragon took more and more of the country, forcing the other Houses into submission. Finally House Dragon captured Phoenix Crest, the ancient home of the Phoenix, those keepers of peace who had vanished during the first House Wars more than a hundred years ago. The Dragon regent declared himself High Prince Regent over all Pyrlanum.
His family left their northern mountains to occupy the fortress, and there the Dragon scion’s aunt was left in charge of the boy and his small brother while their father continued his war. Though House Cockatrice fled Pyrlanum entirely, she managed to hire artists to tutor the scion-Cockatrice had been the house of her birth, after all, and that of her sister. She bought the scion paint and paper, canvas and ink and charcoal. He grew as his skills did, becoming taller and stronger but still very pretty, with a constant flush of fever in his sharp white cheeks, a ghostly gleam in his pale green eyes. He was prone to fits of laughter or staring at nothing, sure signs of madness, the court gossiped. At his aunt’s prodding, the Dragon scion learned to be charming, too, and concealed the wildness he felt. He studied language and policy and economics. He flirted and argued and led council meetings during his father’s frequent absences. Soon everyone believed his disposition to be merely long-running grief. After all, his mother, the late Dragon consort, had been glorious and special, hadn’t she? So her glorious and special son would survive; he would lead them well. Chaos willed it, no matter that his painting boon would be useless in a leader.
But his aunt-she knew the truth of his boon. She whispered to him that she had always had gently prophetic dreams. They ran in their family. Her grandmother had been a brilliant prophet, too. His aunt offered to take the secrets he painted and use them for House Dragon on his behalf. The young scion agreed.
She studied every painting for clues, and when she discovered them, told the High Prince Regent unknowable things: where the last remnants of House Sphinx hid, the location of an ambush, the look of a spy. The High Prince Regent gave her the title of Dragon Seer, and the young scion was glad to have his secret kept so well, as his mother had wished.
Time passed. The scion painted. He dreamed of the eyeless girl but kept her to himself. He had not saved her from the darkness, just like he had not saved his mother. They haunted him, left him wracked with grief some days.
On the morning news reached the fortress that the High Prince Regent had been murdered by House Kraken, the scion woke up laughing. He laughed and laughed, caught in visions of silver swirls of light, hot light, bright light-sunlight!-on the eyeless girl’s face. She had survived.
But the scion had not even dreamed of his own father’s death.
That very day, ten years after the first time he’d clumsily painted her, the scion sketched the true shape of the girl’s cheeks and chin and nose, the wide, eager smile, and bright tilted eyes perfectly shaped, perfectly beautiful, except inside they were churning spirals of darkness. He mixed new colors, thrilled and focused, painting her in long strokes against the entire southeast wall of his bedchamber, directly onto the stone, from crown to chin as tall as the prince was. Her hair curled out into the shadows of the room like a god of storms, and in her pupils dotted tiny explosions of fire.
When his serious little brother ventured up to the scion’s tower, he frowned at the overwhelming sun on her face, finding the art too intense, too real, and he looked at the scion like he’d never seen him before. “What’s wrong with you?” the younger boy asked, knowing nothing of prophecy and its curses.
The scion laughed, determined to keep his brother innocent of his secrets. “I’m only tired, dragonlet,” he said. “Leave me to my dreams.”
In the wake of their father’s death, the scion was made not only the regent of House Dragon, but High Prince Regent, ruler of all Pyrlanum.
Freed by a crown on his head, the High Prince Regent let his generals take over the war, while he took over the tallest tower in Phoenix Crest to paint his eyeless girl again and again. Sometimes he vanished into his tower for days, long enough and sudden enough to foster again those rumors of madness, rumors of a wild spirit or a curse. Each time he emerged, a new painting leaned against the tower walls: the girl in full sunlight, arms crossed defensively, curls flared in a gust of wind and a mask across her eyes. The girl with a sword in hand, strange goggles making her eyes like those of a bumblebee. The girl, older, standing at the top of a cliff, peering over ruins, eyes covered by small masks, one that laughed and one that screamed. The girl in a library beside a hearth as big as a giant’s mouth, holding a dagger made of a curving gryphon talon, and her eyes full moons. The girl in the Phoenix Crest ballroom wearing a cream gown, holding the empty air like she was dancing with a ghost, with eyes made of massive black pearls.
The High Prince Regent was eighteen years old when he painted the girl engulfed in flames. The House Wars his father had reignited had raged for an entire decade.
He barely remembered mixing the colors of fire, or throwing his brushes in the corner. With his hands he drew flames like ivy growing up her body, twisting and burning, but feeding her power. He felt it, too, hot and hungry, the promise of melting in such an inferno. The fire licked up the edges of the canvas and up his wrists, twining his forearms with pain.
The High Prince Regent screamed through his teeth, refusing to stop, as smoke burned tears down his cheeks and his hands shook. He closed his eyes, blocking it out, the fear and heat and pain: it hurt so much, the memory of this future pyre.
He woke up alone in his tower room, nostrils filled with the tinge of old smoke, but there was nothing around him except splatters of paint and every image of the eyeless girl, surrounding him, watching him with her pits of eyes, her bumblebee eyes, her full-moon eyes, sea-glass eyes, ghostly fish-bitten dead eyes, and eyes of pearls. Most of all a new painting on a messy unframed canvas: the girl made of flames, her eyes like twin suns.
There had never been a fire eating him whole.
But there would be.
In four years: a high rampart, a bright blue sky, warships on the brilliant horizon, something sticky in his hand, an awful taste on his tongue. And the eyeless girl, standing before him, her lips on his lips. For the first time he could see her eyes not as furious wells of power, but gentle brown with flecks of gold. Then the fire. It would happen. It must.
Alone in his tower room, the High Prince Regent waited for the sun to rise over his land, torn apart by constant war, then he carefully rent the fiery painting into strips and set them alight.
I had a dream about the dark.
Not the night, which has stars and the moon to cast shadows, but an all-consuming dark, one that devoured and twisted and changed a girl into something else, something defiant and monstrous. She scrabbled in the abyss with the other women of her house: sisters and mothers and cousins and friends, each of them dwindling away until she was the only one left. When it finally came to pass that she was liberated from that hole, her eyes had learned to live without the light, to love the cool comfort of the shadows. And so she wept in the arms of her liberators, not because she was sad, but because her poor damaged eyes had no idea what to do with sunshine.
I dream of my childhood every night before a battle, which is a lot, considering Pyrlanum has been at this worthless war since before I can remember. Fighting might be a rite of passage, one that feels less triumphant the longer we’re in combat, but my dreams are so familiar they’ve become equal parts comforting and distressing. Lucky me, I learned to make peace with fear long ago.
“Darling, heads up!”
A knife flies past my face, close enough to slice a line across the deep brown skin of my cheek and take a chunk from my ear. A curl that has managed to escape from the twin buns at the nape of my neck falls to the ground. I don’t swear at the sudden blossom of pain, just turn to wait for the next blade, ready to deflect it with one of my long knives.
“Really, Adelaide? This close to a battle?” I say, swallowing a sigh.
Adelaide Seabreak, second scion of House Kraken and my adopted sister, grins at me from across the deck of the Barbed Tentacle, flagship of the Kraken navy. The wind whips her long brown hair around her face, and even though her skin is tanned, it is nowhere near as dark a brown as mine. They say that all the members of House Sphinx had skin as brown as the leather of their beloved treatises, but there is no one else to verify this. I am the only one left.