A story of desire, obsession, and emancipation…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood, a lyrical and dreamy reimagining of Dracula’s brides—arriving January 31st from Nyx Publishing.
Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.
With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death.
I never dreamed it would end like this, my lord: your blood splashing hot flecks onto my nightgown and pouring in rivulets onto our bedchamber floor. But creatures like us live a long time. There is no horror left in this world that can surprise me. Eventually, even your death becomes its own sort of inevitability.
I know you loved us all, in your own way. Magdalena for her brilliance, Alexi for his loveliness. But I was your war bride, your faithful Constanta, and you loved me for my will to survive. You coaxed that tenacity out of me and broke it down in your hands, leaving me on your work table like a desiccated doll until you were ready to repair me.
You filled me with your loving guidance, stitched up my seams with thread in your favorite color, taught me how to walk and talk and smile in whatever way pleased you best. I was so happy to be your marionette, at first. So happy to be chosen.
What I am trying to say is
I am trying to tell you
Even loneliness, hollow and cold, becomes so familiar it starts to feel like a friend.
I am trying to tell you why I did what I did. It is the only way I can think to survive and I hope, even now, that you would be proud of my determination to persist.
God. Proud. Am I sick to still think on you softly, even after all the blood and broken promises?
No matter. Nothing else will do. Nothing less than a full account of our life together, from the trembling start all the way to the brutal end. I fear I will go mad if I don’t leave behind some kind of record. If I write it down, I won’t be able to convince myself that none of it happened. I won’t be able to tell myself that you didn’t mean any of it, that it was all just some terrible dream.
You taught us to never feel guilty, to revel when the world demands mourning. So we, your brides, will toast to your memory and drink deep of your legacy, taking our strength from the love we shared with you. We will not bend to despair, not even as the future stretches out hungry and unknown before us. And I, for my part, will keep a record. Not for you, or for any audience, but to quiet my own mind.
I will render you as you really were, neither cast in pristine stained glass or unholy fire. I will make you into nothing more than a man, tender and brutal in equal measure, and perhaps in doing so I will justify myself to you. To my own haunted conscience.
This is my last love letter to you, though some would call it a confession. I suppose both are a sort of gentle violence, putting down in ink what scorches the air when spoken aloud.
If you can still hear me wherever you are, my love, my tormentor, hear this:
It was never my intention to murder you.
Not in the beginning, anyway.
You came to me when the killing was done, while my last breaths rattled through failing lungs. The drunken singing of the raiders wafted towards me on the breeze as I lay in the blood-streaked mud, too agonized to cry out for help. My throat was hoarse from smoke and screaming, and my body was a tender mass of bruises and shattered bones. I had never felt pain like that in my life, and never would again.
War is never valiant, only crude and hideous. Any left alive after the rest have been cut down do not last long exposed to the elements.
I was somebody’s daughter once; a village girl with arms strong enough to help her father in the smithy and a mind quick enough to recall her mother’s shopping list in the market. My days were measured by the light in the sky and the chores set before me, with weekly spoken mass in our tiny wooden church. It was a meager existence, but a happy one, full of my grandmother’s ghost stories by the fire and the hope that one day, I would run my own household.
I wonder if you would have wanted me if you found me like that: vibrant and loved and alive.
But you found me alone, my lord. Beaten down to a shadow of my former self and very near death. It was as though fate had laid me out for you, an irresistible banquet.
Of promise, you would say, of potential.
I say it was vulnerability.
I heard you before I saw you, the clink of mail and crunch of debris underfoot. My grandmother always said creatures like you made no sound when they descended onto battlefields to sup on the fallen. You were supposed to be a night terror made of smoke, not a man of flesh and blood who left footsteps in the dirt.
I flinched when you knelt at my side, my body using what little strength was left to jerk away. Your face was obscured by the blinding sun, but I bared my teeth all the same. I didn’t know who you were. I just knew I would claw out the eyes of the next man who touched me, if my fingers didn’t seize up and betray me. I had been beaten and left for dead, and yet it was not death that had come to claim me.
“Such spite and fury,” you said, your voice a trickle of ice water down my spine. It rooted me to the spot, like a rabbit entranced by a hunter’s snare. “Good. When life fails you, spite will not.”
You took my wrist between your fingers, chill as marble, and brought it up to your mouth. Gently, you pressed a kiss to the pulse quickly going quiet in my wrist.
It was only then I saw your face, while you leaned over me and gauged how long I had left to live. Sharp, dark eyes, a Romanesque nose, and a severe mouth. There was no shadow of malnutrition or disease on your face, no childhood scar gone white with age. Just smooth, impassable perfection, so beautiful it hurt to look at.
“God,” I rasped, coughing up bubbles of blood. Tears sprang to my eyes, half horror, half reverence. I hardly knew who I was talking to. “God, help me.”
Drops of grey rain tumbled from the empty sky, splattering across my cheeks. I could barely feel them. I tightened my fingers into a fist, willing my heart to keep beating.
“So determined to live,” you breathed, as though you were witnessing something holy, as though I was a miracle. “I should call you Constanta. My steadfast Constanta.”
I shuddered as the rain began to pool around us, streaking through my hair and filling my gasping mouth. I know I had a name before that moment. It was a sturdy name, warm and wholesome like a loaf of dark bread fresh out of the oven. But the girl I had been disappeared the instant you pronounced me yours.
“You will not last long, steel-willed though you are,” you said, drawing closer. Your presence above me blocked out the sky, until all I could see was the battered metal insignia pinning your cloak closed at your throat. I had never seen clothes as fine as yours, or ones that looked so old. “They have broken you. Badly.”
I tried to speak, but the pain searing through my chest wouldn’t allow it. A broken rib, perhaps, or several. It was getting harder to drag air into my body. I heard a sick curdling sound with every inhale.
Fluid in the lungs, probably. Blood.
“God,” I rasped, managing a few meager words. “Save me. Please.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and tears trickled out. You bent to kiss my eyelids, one after the other.
“I cannot save you, Constanta,” you murmured. “But I can help.”
What else could I have said? I didn’t know what I was asking for, besides begging not to be left alone in the dirt to drown in my own blood. If I had refused you, would you have left me there? Or was I already marked for you, my cooperation merely a bit of pomp and circumstance to mark the occasion?
You pulled aside my sopping hair and exposed the white flesh of my neck.
“This will hurt,” you murmured, lips tracing the words on my throat.
I grasped blindly, heart hammering in my chest as the world blurred at the edges. My fingers curled around the first thing they found; your forearm. A startled look crossed your face and I clung to you tightly, pulling you closer. I didn’t know what you were offering me, I just knew I was terrified that you were going to leave me.
You stared into my face, almost like you were seeing me for the first time.
“So strong,” you said, tilting your head to take me in the way a jeweler might a perfectly cut diamond. “Hold fast, Constanta. If you live through this, you will never know the sting of death again.”
You lowered your mouth to my throat. I felt two pinpricks, then a searing pain that radiated down my neck and shoulder. I writhed in your grasp, but your hands were strong as a vise on my shoulders, pinning me to the ground.
I had no words for it then, the way we take our strength from the veins of the living. But I knew I was being subjected to some unspeakable horror, something not meant to be carried out in the unforgiving light of day. A fragment of one of my grandmother’s stories flashed through my mind.
They feel no compassion, the moroi. Only hunger.
I had never believed her tales of the dead who crawled out of the earth to sup the blood of the living. Not until then.
There wasn’t enough air left in my body to scream. My only protestation was silent tears streaming down my cheeks, my body a rictus of rigid pain as you drank your fill of me.
Pain hot as the blacksmith’s anvil burned through my veins down to the tips of my fingers and toes. You pushed me to the brink of death but refused to let me slip over the edge. Slowly, slowly bleeding me dry with the restraint only centuries taught.
Cold and limp and entirely spent, I was convinced my life was over. But then, just as my eyes slid shut, I felt the slick touch of wet skin against my mouth. My lips parted instinctively, and I coughed on the stinging, acrid taste of blood. It had no sweetness to me then, no depth or subtlety. All I tasted was red and wrong and burning.
“Drink,” you urged, pressing your bleeding wrist to my mouth. “If you don’t drink, you will die.”
I pressed my lips tightly together, though your blood had already passed my lips. I should have been dead long ago, but somehow I was still alive, renewed vigor rushing through my veins.
“I cannot make you,” you huffed, halfway between a plea and irritation. “The choice is yours.”
Grudgingly, I parted my lips and took your blood into my mouth like mother’s milk. If this was to be my only wretched salvation, so be it.
An indescribable fire bloomed in my chest, filling me with heat and light. It was a purifying kind of fire, like I was being scorched clean from the inside out. The ragged wound in my neck seared as though I had been bitten by something poisonous, but the agony of my bruised muscles and broken bones dulled and then, miraculously, disappeared.
Then the hunger started. Quietly at first, a stirring in the back of my mind, the gentle warmth of a watering mouth.
Suddenly it seized me, and there was no hope of denying it. I felt like I hadn’t tasted a drop of water in weeks, like I couldn’t even remember the taste of food. I needed the pulsing, salty nourishment streaming from your wrist, more and more of it.
I clamped my ice-cold fingers around your arm and dug my teeth into your skin, sucking the blood right out of your veins. I didn’t have my hunting teeth then, but I gave it my best attempt, even as you wrenched your wrist away from my slick mouth.
“Easy, Constanta. You must remember to breathe. If you don’t start slowly, you’ll make yourself sick.”
“Please,” I rasped, but I hardly knew what I was asking for. My head was swimming, my heart was racing, and I had gone from nearly dead to viscerally alive in a matter of minutes. I did feel a little sick, to be honest, but I was also reeling with euphoria. I should be dead, but I wasn’t. Terrible things had been done to me, and I had done a terrible thing too, but I was alive.
“Stand up, my dark miracle,” you said, pulling yourself to your feet and holding your hand out to me. “Come and face the night.”
I rose on shaky knees into a new life, one of delirium and breathtaking power. Blood, yours and mine, dried into brown flakes on my fingers and mouth.
You swept your hands over my cheeks, cupping my face and taking me in. The intensity of your attention was staggering. At the time, I would have called it proof of your love, burning and all-consuming. But I’ve grown to understand that you have more of the scientist obsessed than the lover possessed in you, and that your examinations lend themselves more towards a scrutiny of weakness, imperfection, any detail in need of your corrective care.
You tipped my face and pressed your thumb down against my tongue, peering into my mouth. An urge to bite swelled up within me, but I smothered it.
“You need to cut your teeth or they’ll become ingrown,” you announced. “And you need to eat, properly.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, even though it was a lie. I just couldn’t fathom having an appetite for food, for black bread and beef stew and a mug of beer, after everything that had happened to me that day. I felt like I would never need food again, despite the hunger gnawing at my stomach like a caged animal.
“You will learn, little Constanta,” you said with a fond, patronizing smile. “I’m going to open whole worlds to you.”
Excerpted from A Dowry of Blood, copyright © 2021 by S.T. Gibson.