If you can’t wait for Shadow & Bone to hit Netflix, then we have a thrilling new fantasy novel for you to check out in the meantime! The Bright & the Pale by debut author Jessica Rubinkowski is the first book in an epic Russian folklore–inspired fantasy duology filled with page-turning romance, tragedy, magic, and fearsome gods.
Seventeen-year-old Valeria is one of the only survivors of the freeze, a dark magical hold Knnot Mountain unleashed on her village. Everyone, including her family, is trapped in an unbreakable sheet of ice. Ever since, she’s been on the run from the czar, who has set out to imprison anyone who managed to escape. Valeria finds refuge with the Thieves Guild, doing odd jobs with her best friend, Alik, the only piece of home she has left. That is, until he is brutally murdered.
A year later, she discovers Alik is alive and being held captive. To buy his freedom, she must lead a group of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family. Only something sinister slumbers in the heart of Knnot. And it has waited years for release.
Start reading a sneak peek of the The Bright & the Pale below!
THE KNOCK AT MY DOOR can mean only one of two things. I’ve finally been discovered and should prepare for my immediate shipment to a tyur’ma, a prison in the middle of a freezing wasteland. Or I’ve got another mission.
Neither sounds appealing.
I roll from the warm cocoon of my quilt and wince as my feet hit the floor. The bite of the cold boards rolls through me and reminds me why I wasn’t able to sleep in the first place. It’s the type of night that makes me remember. My dreams would be haunted by crawling frost and frozen bodies. My mother, swallowed by ice; my father, trapped forever, laughing at a joke I never heard. I squeeze my eyes shut against the thought, willing the dull sheen of ice covering my mother’s face to fade from memory.
The knock comes again, more insistent this time. I swear to the Bright God above, this had better be urgent. I rip open the door midknock. Blistering wind forces its way into my home, wicking away the heat of my anger. A person in a dark cloak stands on the stoop with their face hidden in shadow, a bag slung over their arm. Not the bright-gold-and-black uniform of a Storm Hound, then. The tight ball in my chest loosens slightly. Another night of freedom.
I step silently to the side, already knowing who lies deep within the hood. The street outside sits empty, as always. Everyone knows what this building is and likes to pretend it doesn’t exist. It is under the Czar’s protection, after all, and who were they to question the might of the Czar?
The stout form slips inside. Crystalline snowflakes cling to the midnight fabric of the cloak, stark and vibrant in the dull glow from the hearth on the other side of the room. I close the door slowly, shivering as the last whispers of cold wind curl around my ankles. My chest grows tighter as the memory of icy fingers closing around my leg races through my mind. The absolute hunger of the frost, clawing at my family, my home, Ludminka. I swallow hard as I lock the door tight, as if that will keep the memories from consuming me.
“Couldn’t use the front door?” I point at the wooden door on the opposite side of the room as I walk to the fireplace and toss on another log. That door leads to the Thieves Guild headquarters, and if I’m doing guild business, I prefer it to come from there.
The fire roars to life, and warmth begins to leak out toward the small two-person table in the center of the room. I sit down while my guest perches primly in the chair opposite me, hood thrown back and chestnut hair gleaming in a waterfall down her back. I can’t help the smile that tugs at my mouth.
“You know I can’t risk having the others see.” Luiza, master of the Thieves Guild, returns my smile. “I can’t be playing favorites, now can I?”
I let a chuckle escape my lips and the iron vise in my chest loosens a little.
“They already know you love me best. I don’t know why you try to pretend otherwise,” I say.
“To maintain my mysterious and aloof cover, of course.”
I laugh again. Luiza has been master of the guild since before I came to her, cold and very alone. She didn’t have to take me into her network of thieves and assassins. She could’ve turned me over to the Czar or tortured information about the Freeze of Ludminka from me. She didn’t, instead using me and the other orphaned children she found to gather all the information the Czar could ever need to keep control over the population of Strana.
“What brings you to my room tonight?”
Luiza’s eyes drift from my face to the small window above my bed. Bright moonlight spills across the worn, buttery yellow quilt, and my heart gives another painful squeeze. I’d helped my matta make that quilt, the year before the freeze. It was the only thing I still had of my family.
“I knew you shouldn’t be alone with your thoughts tonight.” Her eyes venture back to my face. “You look like you haven’t slept in days.”
Her hands, calloused and lined with the beginnings of wrinkles, circle mine. She rubs a thumb over my knuckles and I try to contain the swell growing inside. She’s right. I haven’t slept. No more than a handful of hours the past couple of days. The season turned to winter, bringing with it blistering winds and the slow curl of frost across windowpanes.
I used to think the panic that came every time I saw a snowflake or heard the crunch of frozen grass beneath my feet would dissipate.
But as the years passed, my fear had only grown. Thinking this winter would be the one when the frost finally claimed me like it had my entire town. That this time would be when my luck finally ran out and whatever curse had sickened everyone from Zladonia would finally find me.
My hands tremble and Luiza squeezes them tighter.
“Valeria, take a deep breath,” she says. I obey and try to release the tension through my nose. “Another.”
I follow orders and my racing heart calms. She captures my gaze and takes a deep breath, which I mimic.
“You’ve been with me for ten years now, since you were just a girl of seven. You know I will keep you safe. This is your home, and I will never let anything happen to you again. What happened in Ludminka—”
My face tightens at the name of my village. She gives me an apologetic half smile before continuing.
“It has never happened again. You are safe.”
“I think it’s getting worse,” I say, hating the way my voice sounds small and fragile.
“It’s been worse since Alik,” she says.
My heart constricts so hard and quick, I’m almost left breathless. Luiza squeezes my hand again. A year ago, I lost Alik—my best friend and only other Zladonian I’d known since my parents’ deaths—to the Czar’s cruel militia, the Storm Hounds. Specifically created to hunt down Zladonians and round them up into prisons strung across Strana.
The Czar said it was to protect the people from the plague. To contain the strange sickness that seemed to crawl through us. Yet aside from the few scouts who’d ventured into the Zladonian region at Strana’s northernmost point, no one had gotten sick. It was clear the plague lay in the North, not inside the Zladonians. But the Czar still refused to free them.
“I want to talk about something else. Anything else,” I say.
Luiza gives my hands a final squeeze before releasing them. She studies my face and I know what she’s going to say before she opens her mouth.
“Let’s check your hair.”
I sigh and swivel to face the fire, trying to relax as Luiza slowly undoes the plait down my back. She lets out a disgruntled hum as the tangles at the top free themselves. I don’t need a mirror to know exactly what she sees. The ends of my hair are a dull chestnut, almost identical to Luiza’s, but the roots are bone white.
“You should’ve told me as soon as it started to show,” she says.
“It’s winter. I’m always in caps anyway. I didn’t figure it mattered.”
“It always matters,” she mutters.
She pulls a forest green pot from the bag on the floor beside us and I make a face.
Every Zladonian bears the same marks: colorless hair and nearly translucent skin. Years spent mining Strana’s prime resource, lovite, had turned all of us. The ore lies deep within the mountains strewn throughout the North, and Zladonians dutifully harvested it for the Czar.
No one complained when the dust from the pale ore infiltrated their lungs and dyed their children the same color in the womb. Not when there were riches to be had. Everyone had profited from the wealth lovite brought into the country. When melted down and paired with iron, the alloy became unbreakable. Walls across the world had been built with lovite, ensuring a city’s safety and a building’s resistance to flame. Weapons forged with it gleamed on battlefields, their edges never dulling.
And Strana controlled the only deposits of lovite the world over.
The freeze stole it all. Now Strana is nothing but a shadow of its former self, scraping by on exports of fish and lumber.
Luiza sighs and slides the lid from the pot in her hand. A pungent chemical stench circles me. I almost don’t notice anymore. Luiza’s been dyeing my hair ever since she found me. My hair is the only thing that marks me as a malozla, a “little evil.” A sick twist of the Zladonia region’s name.
She takes a bit of the claylike substance from the pot and moves to stand before me, beginning the process of pressing it into my roots. She hums as she does it, a favorite from when I was little.
“You’re quiet,” Luiza says.
“You know I don’t like doing this.”
Luiza’s mouth pulls at the corners, and she lets the comb drop to her side. Her dark brown eyes meet mine.
“I know,” she says. “I just want to keep you as safe as I can. You don’t know the things I hear. . . .”
Luiza has always done her best to hide what happens at the tyur’mas from me. She seems to forget I often receive the same unfiltered information she does. I work for the best Thieves Guild in the world. The information we get is nearly always right.
All the countries at our borders have attempted to mimic the success of Luiza’s guild, establishing spies and thieves of their own in order to combat Strana’s chokehold on the world. The country may have gained power due to lovite, but it kept it because of Luiza and the secrets she gathered. The Czar maintains control and, in turn, Luiza is granted freedom to run the guild outside the law.
Luiza finishes combing the dye through my hair and adds a swipe of it to each eyebrow. I stare at the dark smudges in the mirror, hating Czar Ladislaw for making this a necessity. Hating the Storm Hounds for being more than willing to round us up. Hating the entirety of Strana for turning anyone like me over to the hands of the Czar like it might cure their poverty.
Luiza presses a hand to my face and my eyes flick to her. Her brows knit together, almost as if she could feel the anger radiating off me.
“What?” I ask.
“I have something that may settle your mind. It affects the Czar. Specifically.”
“Why target your employer?” I ask, wanting more than anything for Luiza to be telling the truth.
I’d worked for Luiza and the guild to survive, thinking the Czar would never look for a Zladonian right under his nose, and trusting Luiza to keep me safe with her dyes and careful disguises. But if there was even the smallest chance that I could take down Czar Ladislaw for good, I would do it. He took everything from me. Fellow Zladonians, Alik.
Now it’s my turn to take.
She gives a grim smile. “There is no easy way for me to put this. The Czar still retains a stash of lovite, and I need you to get it for me.”
“Oh.” I haven’t seen lovite since I was chased from my village all those years ago. The stores in Rurik, the capital of Strana, and the shipping towns along the Iron Sea to the east were depleted in a matter of months. The Czar has claimed for years there was no lovite left.
“What does this have to do with the Czar?” I ask.
“I’ve got a contact who has agreed to pay a mighty sum for any lovite he receives. He’s building an army to raise against the Czar and needs it for weapons to fight the Storm Hounds.”
I scoff. “No one in Strana is willing to raise a hand against their czar. They’ve let him rule this country for twenty years. We can’t stop him. Why help this army instead of turning the rebellion in to the Czar? I’m sure he’d reward you for it.”
Luiza kneels, so our eyes our level. She puts her hand on mine and her face flickers in the flames beside us.
“I’m not loyal to the Czar, Valeria. I’m loyal to myself. The tides turn in this country. The people are angry, the Zladonians suffer, our country dies. It won’t be long until our enemies try to invade. I won’t let it happen. I go where the tide goes, to keep us alive.”
I brush the all too familiar scar on my left wrist, following the lines of it as I think. Red from rubbing, the scar looks emblazoned there by the hands of a god. Luiza grabs my hand and stills its path. She’s told me hundreds of times it’s too obvious a tell.
“What makes you think this army will be successful?” I ask at last.
“One of Ladislaw’s own Storm Hounds leads the charge.”
“So?” I ask.
“He’s the champion of the Bright God. I’m certain of it.”
I can’t help but laugh.
“There is no way,” I say.
The Vestry teaches about champions of the Brother Gods, the Bright and the Pale. The gods despise each other, constantly at odds. The Bright God seeks to bring light and warmth to the world, while the Pale God consumes pain and brings suffering to fatten himself more. Since before Strana was called Strana, they have been battling each other. When their godly bodies returned to the heavens and the hells below, they extended their hands and chose a mortal champion to continue their war.
When a Bright God’s champion rose, the world was in turmoil and he sought to right it. When a Pale God’s champion arrived, he destroyed all in his path, taking no prisoners and showing no mercy. Their battles were always bloody, destroying thousands of lives. There hasn’t been one in a hundred years. Why would the gods suddenly awaken? Years of pain had passed without the Brothers so much as lifting a finger.
Luiza levels a stare. She hasn’t looked at me like this since I ruined a mission by falling into a vat of dye.
“You truly believe a champion has come to Strana to rid us of a czar? And that he’s a Storm Hound.”
“I met him. He proved it.”
Luiza pulls the collar of her tunic to the side. On her right shoulder used to be a long, rigid scar she’d gotten as a child in a street fight. Now, it’s gone.
“How?” I whisper. There’d been stories of champions blessed with the gifts of their patron god, but to see it . . . the proof is undeniable.
“A gift, he called it. To prove his usefulness,” Luiza says. “So, what do you say?”
I smile. “Let’s overthrow a czar.”
“THE PLAN IS COMPLICATED, BUT I know you can handle it,” Luiza says as she combs the dry clay from my hair. It falls in crumbles to the ground, my hair now officially hidden once again. When she’s certain nothing is left, she digs a long silver robe out of her bag.
I grimace as she lays it on my bed. There is only one group of people in all Strana who wears those: the Holy Sisters of the Brother Gods. The deep gray robes cover a beaded sarafan, a clear indicator Luiza intends for me to be a sister to the Pale God. What a cruel twist of the knife.
I stopped believing the Brother Gods meant anything decent for humanity the day Ludminka fell to the ice. If the gods truly loved us, as the priests claimed, they would’ve stopped it. They would’ve sent their champions or used their powers to aid humanity. Instead, they slumbered, turning a blind eye as we all suffered. Perhaps the Pale God wanted it that way, desiring to feast on the pain of the Zladonians who’d made him their patron when the rest of Strana prayed to the Bright God. If so, I wish to spit in his eye.
“Does it have to be a Holy Sister?”
“The lovite is inside the Royal Vestry. It’s the only way you’re getting in.”
“You want me to sneak into the palace grounds? Breaking in isn’t just complicated, it’s impossible.”
“Not impossible. You’re the best. I trust no one else with this mission.” Luiza crosses to me and takes my face in her hands. She smiles before kissing my forehead. “My little fox. You must be brave. We’re changing the world. The champion has promised me he’ll do right by the Zladonians and free them. You want that, don’t you?”
“You know I do,” I mutter.
“Then let me get you ready.”
I sit back down before the fire. Luiza takes her time braiding my hair in a small circular crown before settling a thick veil on it, pinning it in place. The soft fabric flutters to a stop just above my nose. She lifts the shirt up next.
I slip into it, accustomed to the rough woolen fabric and embroidered bell sleeves. It falls to my thighs, and Luiza follows it with a silver sarafan, a beautiful long dress with sparkling embroidery up the center in a thick stripe, whorls of beading studding the collar and wide straps. Last comes a deep gray robe lined with velvet and fur. Luiza tosses me my utility belt from the post of my bed. It holds everything I could need: lockpicks, gloves, even small throwing knives. I slip it under the skirts of the sarafan, effectively hiding it from sight.
“You can barely see your face. You should be fine.”
“So, what’s the plan? Beg my way into the palace, hope no one stops me, and steal from the Vestry coffers?” I ask, flipping the fabric of the veil back.
“Essentially. There’s a single guard who circles the gate this time of night. Lie your way in by telling him of the attack on the North Road Vestry. Say you need sanctuary.”
“There’s been an attack?”
“There’s about to be,” Luiza says. “After that, it’s up to you to get to the Vestry and take your place with the other sisters. Once they retire for bed, you’ll go to the priest’s office. The lovite is hidden in a safe.”
I nod. I’d had harder missions. Impossible hidden caches high in the mountains or trunks of manifests locked in a bog haunted by hungry rusalka. Aside from being in the Czar’s palace, this didn’t seem too difficult.
“You must be careful, Valeria. They can’t trace this back to me. If they do, the entire guild will be compromised. Until now, he has granted us freedom because we helped him keep his throne. If he discovers our betrayal, his retribution will be swift.”
Luiza takes my hands. “I’m giving this to you because I know you’ll do right by me. I can trust you with anything. You’re the closest thing to a daughter I’ll ever have, and I’ll be forever grateful.”
My throat constricts at her words. She brings my wrist bearing the scar up to her lips and gives it a kiss, always aware of how much I hate it. I thought it ugly; she said it made me something special. She had since she caught me inside the guild storeroom desperately trying to stuff a tattered bag full of all the food I could.
I lean forward until my head rests against her shoulder and curl my arms around her waist. She pulls me into a tighter hug. I inhale her familiar smell, incense and the soft note of a rose, and let it calm me. She’s all I’ve had for the past ten years.
She squeezes me tight before stepping back and leveling me with a weighted stare.
“We can’t have you being followed. Take it to our drop location in the outskirts of Rurik, the one inside the burned house. Then slowly make your way back here in the most complicated way you can.”
“Don’t worry, Luiza. I can do this.”
I will make her proud.
She smiles at me. “I know you can. I’ll see you in the morning?”
I nod, expecting her to leave. Instead, she catches my hands.
“I do love you. You know that, right? All I’ve ever tried to do is what is best for you.”
“I know,” I say with a raised eyebrow.
She doesn’t respond to my obvious confusion. She just brushes my cheek with the back of her hand and makes her way to the door leading to the guild headquarters, giving me one final smile before she slips out, leaving me to prepare for an impossible mission.
Are you hooked on this sneak peek?
The post This Sneak Peek of ‘The Bright & The Pale’ Will Enchant You! appeared first on Epic Reads.