We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Bright and the Pale, the first book in an epic Russian folklore–inspired fantasy duology from debut author Jessica Rubinkowski—available March 2nd from Quill Tree Books.
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.
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 kortuga, a prison in the middle of a freezing wasteland. Or I’ve got another mission.
Neither sounds appealing.
I roll out 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 my 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 that sits in the center of the room. I sit down and my guest sits primly in one chair, 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 that 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 pulls away slightly to look at me.
“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 move on the chair beside 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 any- more. Luiza’s been dyeing my hair ever since she found me. My hair is the only thing that mark me 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 starts 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 in the mirror.
“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 f lick 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.”
I turn to face her, gripping the back of the chair.
“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 f lickers in the f lames 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 tur- moil and he sought to right it. When a Pale God’s champion arrived, he destroyed all in his path, taking no prisoners and giving 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 that 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’d called it. To prove his usefulness,” Luiza says. “So, what do you say?”
I smile. “Let’s overthrow a czar.”
Excerpted from The Bright and the Pale, copyright © 2021 by Jessica Rubinkowski.