Read an Excerpt From Leanne Schwartz’ To a Darker Shore

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from To a Darker Shore, a new young adult fantasy novel by Leanne Schwartz, out from Page Street Publishing on April 30th.

Plain, poor, plus-size, and autistic, Alesta grew up trying to convince her beauty-obsessed kingdom that she’s too useful to be sacrificed. Their god blessed their island Soladisa as a haven for his followers, but to keep the devil at bay, the church sends a child sacrifice to hell’s entrance every season―often poor or plain girls just like Alesta.

With a head full of ideas for inventions, Alesta knows her best shot at making it to adulthood is to design something impressive for the festival exhibition so she might win a spot in the university―acceptance could guarantee her safety. But Alesta’s flying machine demonstration goes awry, a failure that will surely mean death. What happens is worse: Her best friend and heir to the throne, Kyrian, takes the blame expecting leniency but ends up sacrificed in her place.

To stop the sacrifices forever, Alesta plans to kill the monster that killed her friend. Prepared to save her kingdom or die trying, she travels to the depths of hell only to find Kyrian―alive, but monstrously transformed.

There is no escaping hell or their growing feelings for one another, and the deeper they descend into hell, the closer they come to uncovering a truth about the sacrifices that threatens to invoke the wrath of not only monsters but the gods as well.

Chapter One

An Unholy Hunger

Alesta expected monsters.

She grew distracted only a moment, watching the terns soar over the bright blue sea, wondering how their wings kept them aloft. The birds pulled her gaze along the coast and to the sky.

That’s when the branzono must have crept over the low cliff and rocky dunes.

It drew up as tall as Alesta on its two legs, wicked fins jutting from its calves and back, skin pulled taut over wide, boney shoulders and too-long arms—green like the headland, but the visceral wrongness of it here in Soladisa’s garden paradise turned the warm salt air on her tongue to an acid tang of fear.

The monster shambled nearer the grassy stretch of grazing land Alesta’s flock was abandoning with violent bleats, more strident warning than the bells up at the Towers. Shaken from her reverie, Alesta dodged sheep, spooked and scattering and heedless of any bellwether. She raced for the branzono.

Herder’s staff in hand, skirts flying, she cursed herself for having taken her eyes off the ground. Branzonos were a common enough threat, especially on this side of the island, facing the monster’s rock, where the sea was full of them—and worse. She and Nonnina couldn’t afford to lose a single sheep to a monster’s spiny teeth.

Wariness of the hunger of monsters lived deep in Alesta’s bones. Wasn’t it the appetite of the greatest devil of them all out on that cursed rock that was devouring Alesta’s hope for any real future?

With a swell of frustration at that reality coursing through her limbs, she cracked her staff against the monster’s side before it could reach its claws toward any of the panicked animals. “Oh, no you don’t.

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To a Darker Shore

To a Darker Shore

Leanne Schwartz

It gave a strangled scream and clutched at the staff, dragging Alesta off-balance. Not easy, considering her sturdy build—this thing was strong. She took advantage, letting it pull her and throwing all of her weight into the staff, driving the creature back on its webbed feet. They both toppled over, her crook trumbling from their grasps. Alesta reached for the knife at her belt as she rolled. She twisted over the beast to thrust the blade down, aiming for the monster’s shriveled heart.

The branzono grabbed her wrist. Against her tan skin, the webbing between its long white claws shimmered like seaweed, like most of its slimy body. But hell burned in the devil even as it yet dripped with seawater; the leathery hide over its upper arms and shoulders blistered and peeled away from seeping, deeper layers of skin, even muscle, in black-crusted folds. The unholy steam coming off them seared her skin as she strained against the branzono’s hold. The monster stared up at Alesta, pale eyes cast with terrible longing, vast and vacant as the sky.

Just hunger. And she was no one’s meal. Not yet. Not today.

Alesta drove her elbow down into the branzono’s chest. It gave a startling crack. The creature swiped out at her wildly with its free hand. Its claws missed her eye, thank Hektorus, but tore through her hair. Its knuckles bashed against her cheekbone with that monstrous strength. She shouted. But the branzono, in greater pain, loosened its grip. Alesta pushed the rest of her outrage into her final blow, wrapping both hands about her knife’s simple wooden hilt and plunging its blade deep through monster skin and sinew and muscle.

She shoved herself back, but dark blood spurted from the wound, and the wind off the sea carried a mist of it into her face. With a grimace, Alesta let herself fall fully into the damp grass, chest heaving against her leather bodice’s laces, mangled hair sticking to her face with sweat and blood.

Which was the perfect moment, of course, for the future king of Soladisa to find her.

His low voice, out of breath and raked through with concern, came from just behind her. “You all right?”

She tilted her chin to squint up at him. His tall silhouette was nearly lost in the afternoon sun’s sharp beams. “Never better.”

He strode to her side, careful to avoid where the branzono still twitched, and threw out a hand to help her up.

She wiped her bloody palm on her overskirt—already stained with grass and dark with sandy earth—before accepting. For a moment, her insides pinched with worry that she’d be too heavy for the boy to pull her to her feet without a struggle. Then she was up, looking straight into Kyr’s eyes. Holding his hand.

She dropped it and wiped her hair from her face, trying to smooth it down. The vanity of it made her feel foolish, though, so she played it off, and with the affectation of a lady of the Towers, said, “By Hektorus’ breath, you do meet all sorts out here on the headland.”

His concerned face broke into a slight smile. “I hope I’m a more welcome sight than a branzono.” One dimple flickered into existence. “You perfect calamity.”

She scrunched her face as if considering his glossy, dark curls kissed with golden highlights, his long straight nose, his strong jaw and sharp cheekbones. Her heart twitched a little, like the monster at her feet, but she shrugged, acting unimpressed. “At least you don’t try to eat my sheep.”

His smile—that wide, full mouth—turned wry. “Unless Nonnina’s invited me to dinner.” The light in his brown eyes dimmed a little. His voice went flat, like it always did when he was being serious. “You need to go to the Arbor at once to be absolved.” His thumb scraped back and forth over the worn embossing of the book he held.

She sighed and crouched beside the monster to pull her knife from its stilled chest. One more reason she hated the things. Now she had to trudge up to the Towers and submit to the ministrations of an albero, to cleanse her of the killing, when she was already so short on time, still desperate to think up an invention to present at this year’s Festival of Virtues. Though, as long as she had killed this one—“Look at the gills.” She tilted her head and used the tip of her knife to pull one set apart to better see where the skin turned pale and sieve-like. “I wonder if the structure could have applications for cleansing water in the aqueducts? And this webbing…” She prodded at the skin with her own finger. It stretched easily over her nail. Kyr made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. “It’s actually translucent, but still strong.”


That stopped her. She lifted her gaze from the carcass to Kyr, now backlit by the glittering sea like the fractured glass worked into the murals in the Towers’ courtyard walls.

“Within the hour of a devil’s dispatching—” he recited at her. His hand left off the book to worry one of the shining buttons on his colorful, embroidered jacket.

She sucked her teeth. “If I try to haul this home or get cleaned up before going to the Towers, you’re just going to get twitchier, aren’t you?”

He screwed up his face the same considering way she had, then nodded emphatically. “My twitchiest.”

Always such a stickler. She slapped her palm to a thigh and blew out a breath as she rose. “Fine. But you’re coming with me.” She sheathed her knife.

“Of course. I was on my way to spend the afternoon with you. Here or there.” He shrugged, as if it made no difference to him.

She knew he was avoiding the Towers, though, even more than usual. It was a tithing moon.

Normally they didn’t pretend with each other, not about anything important. But Kyr never wanted to talk about the tithing. He swallowed and held the book out to her. “Brought this for you.”

A kindness. Even if he couldn’t admit it aloud, they were both aware what was coming in mere weeks, and how the threat of each season’s tithing weighed upon some more than others. How frantic Alesta had been growing to prove herself at the festival before this particular axe could fall. Warmth flooded her insides as she took the volume—old enough for Kyr to be passing on to his poor tenant friend, so it wasn’t as if her smudged hands could hurt its cracked leather binding.

And when she asked him about it, as they set off, she got to see Kyr’s face light up, eyes rounding, tan skin aglow. With great sweeps of his hands he told her about the story writ in verse, his words coming so fast, sometimes they stuttered from his mouth. He paused only when they passed Alesta’s neighbor, brought off his field by the commotion of fleeing sheep. Vittore offered to gather and pen them for Alesta while she was absolved. They’d traded favors since she and her grandmother were left to run their farm on their own—Vittore and his children helping with the harvest, Alesta fixing his plow and remaking his olive press to be more effective. Not to mention killing branzonos before they could make their way further inland and onto his fields.

Kyr fidgeted with a stray thread at the elbow of his jacket until Alesta got moving again. Through rolling green hills and along the edges of orchards, they filled their hike up to the city with talk of monster slaying, or the wingspan of terns, or the latest landscape Kyr had finished painting.

As they passed through the cobblestone streets of the city, winding closer to the Towers, Kyr grew straighter-spined and more reserved. No more animated explanations or questions to Alesta. His hands no longer flew about like birds but trapped one another at the small of his back. Tradespeople nodded to him, and he nodded back with precision.

The city made its demands upon everyone in its own way.

Too soon, the front entrance to the Towers loomed before them—an intimidating expanse of granite steps Kyr didn’t hesitate striding up. Alesta forced herself to match his pace. Inside the Towers’ stately halls, she wanted to walk to one side, off the plush rugs with their elaborate weaves and out of the way of courtiers in their billowing, elegant dresses. Yet Kyr walked straight down their center, and she stuck beside him.

He was used to the place, but Alesta’s eyes roved hungrily over the swooping reliefs decorating the stone halls, the glittering lamps aglow with eternal-burning kharis. Each carving was like a toehold for her to climb, each glint a blade sharpening her ambition. Someday she’d belong here as much as any of these courtiers, whose faces beamed as Kyr passed, who bowed and curtsied and exchanged brief pleasantries with him as he ushered Alesta through the network of corridors and staircases and courtyards.

“My lord Kyrian!” one dark-haired girl sang out. She waved her fan and elbow in a sinuous greeting.

Kyr bowed in return. “My lady Rina.”

He made as if to continue down the hall, but Rina swished her skirts in front of him and launched into a gleeful recitation of courtly gossip, barely stopping for breath. “It’s been ages; you’ve missed so much. And when, pray tell, are you finally going to paint my portrait? Our lord Silvio’s recently had his done, and the court is all abuzz about it—”

“Anytime you wish, my lady. Only just now—”

“—though you must allow me to tell you what was said about it at our lady Francesca’s dinner last night—” Rina rushed on, black eyes twinkling. The daughter of the most powerful clairvoyant of Soladisa and the admiral of its royal fleet, Rina looked like she belonged in these halls, where every surface and structure had been made into art. Her hair was bound in complex braids, with strings of pearls winding through her tresses. Tiny jewels dotted each of her clean, polished nails. No calluses marred her silky brown skin. Her full, melon-colored skirts fell all the way past her dainty, embroidered slippers to the floor, because she only ever walked the clean-swept marble tiles and spotless rugs of the Towers. Alesta tugged at her own stained skirts that came to her calves, feeling like a child instead of a grown girl of seventeen— one who would not reach eighteen unless she got moving and let the alberos berate and shrive her.

Kyr had completed his transformation. As he murmured vague responses to Rina’s litany of minor scandals, he matched the other courtiers’ posture, mirrored their cultivated gestures, mimicked their dulcet inflection. He was always one of the Towers set, really, but living down the island at his mother’s villa, he had spent more time running wild with Alesta than with them.

Then King Enzo’s only son was killed by a branzono two years ago, and everyone assumed the king would name his eldest nephew his new heir. Kyr’s mother sent him regularly to study alongside his younger cousins living in the noble apartments at the Towers, and Kyr had taken it upon himself to learn everything he would need someday to be a proper king.

Alesta shifted uncomfortably beside him and Rina. A much different fate awaited her, if she didn’t watch out sharp for herself. Earning a place here at the Towers—the seat of Soladisa’s government, religion and, most importantly, university—was the surest alternative, but right now, feeling frumpish and mussed, she wished she were far away. Or invisible.

Perhaps Rina had begun Seeing like her mother, because she seemed to pick up on Alesta’s embarrassment at that very moment. “Lessie! It’s such—a pleasure to see you.” Her enthusiastic words slowed the further she got in her greeting, as if she were a mechanical doll winding down. Her courtly manners faltered as her eyes roamed over Alesta’s face and clothes.

Alesta was used to searching looks, even when she wasn’t covered in branzono blood and dirt. Not the appreciative glances some might enjoy, but arrested stares. Like she was an abomination and not a girl.

Whispers often followed, behind her back, from certain other youths after weekly chapel—her body showed gluttony and laziness, her face could scare monsters away. Always couched in tones of righteous concern for her and her immortal spirit. As if being pretty was a chore Alesta had foolishly neglected. She couldn’t even bash the whisperers with her herding staff unless she wanted the alberos piling more sins at her feet. After all, those youths were only echoing the Arbor’s stories of Hektorus blighting those who strayed too near the devil—who shirked their duty to the Arbor and its absolution—and blessing the virtuous with beauty that shone like their goodness, making them in his image.

She preferred the way most people pretended they didn’t see her at all.

Excerpted from To a Darker Shore, copyright © 2024 by Leanne Schwartz.

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