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A Dowry of Blood
By S. T. Gibson
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This sensational novel tells the darkly seductive tale of Dracula's first bride, Constanta.
This is my last love letter to you, though some would call it a confession. . .
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.
"A dizzying nightmare of a romance that will leave you aching, angry and ultimately hopeful." –Hannah Whitten, New York Times bestselling author of For the Wolf
A DOWRY OF BLOOD
By S.T. Gibson
First published in Great Britain in 2022 by Orbit
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Gibson
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All characters and events in this publication, other than
those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious
and any resemblance to real persons,
living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.
An imprint of
Little, Brown Book Group
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
An Hachette UK Company
Other books by S.T. Gibson
"Brideprice" in Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology
edited by Celine Frohn (Nyx Publishing)
"Revival" in The Fiends in the Furrows: An Anthology of Folk Horror edited by David T. Neal and Christine M. Scott (Nosetouch Press)
About the author
To those who escaped a love like death,
and to those still caught in its grasp:
you are the heroes of this story
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 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."
You kissed my forehead and smoothed my filthy hair away from my face.
"I will do you a twofold kindness," you said. "I will raise you out of the dirt and into queenship. And, I will give you your vengeance."
"Vengeance?" I whispered, the word harsh and electrifying on my tongue. It sounded Biblical, apocalyptic, beyond the grasp of human experience. But I wasn't human anymore, and you hadn't been for a long time.
"Listen," you said.
I fell silent, ears perking up with newfound sharpness. There was the clanking of armor and the low chatter of men, far enough away that I would never have been able to hear it before, but not so far that we couldn't close to distance between us and them in a matter of minutes.
Liquid rage pooled in my stomach and lit up my face. It made me strong, that rage, hardening to solid iron in my limbs. All of a sudden, I wanted to destroy every man who had beat my father until he stopped moving, held torches to our home while my brother screamed for them to spare the children inside. I wanted to break them, even more slowly and painfully than they had broken me, leave them bleeding out and begging for mercy.
I had never been inclined to violence before. But then again, I had never borne witness to acts so vile they demanded retribution. I had never experienced the kind of agony that leaves the mind coiled and poised to lash out at the first opportunity. I would carry that viper inside me for years, letting it out intermittently to rip the wicked to pieces. But that day, I had not yet befriended the serpent within. It seemed to me a strange interloper, a frightening thing, demanding to be fed.
You put your mouth close to my ear as I stared off into the distance, towards where the raiders were enjoying their meal. Even now, I have no idea how they stomached taking their supper feet away from the disemboweled entrails of women and children. War is the whetstone that grinds down all sense, all humanity.
"They will not hear you coming," you murmured. "I will stand a little ways off to ensure your safety, and to make sure none of them run."
My mouth watered, aching gums screaming out. My stomach twisted into painful knots, as though I hadn't eaten in a fortnight.
Slowly, the shaking hands at my sides curled into steady fists.
I felt you smile against my skin, your voice taking on the rough pleasure of the hunt.
"Water your mother's flowers with their blood."
I nodded, my breath coming shallow and hot.
"Yes, my lord."
My lord. My liege. Beloved. King. My darling. My defender.
I had so many names for you in those days, my cup of devotion overflowing with titles worthy of your station. I used your name, too, the one your mother had given you, but only in our most intimate moments. When I comforted you during your rare displays of weakness or made a vow to you as a woman, as a wife.
But I am not your wife anymore, my lord, and I don't think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.
You did not let me keep my name, so I will strip you of yours. In this world, you are what I say you are, and I say you are a ghost, a long night's fever dream that I have finally woken up from. I say you are the smoke-wisp memory of a flame, thawing ice suffering under an early spring sun, a chalk ledger of debts being wiped clean.
I say you do not have a name.
Bloodlust brings on a delirium that's difficult to describe. From the first squirt on the tongue to the last dying jerk of your prey under your hands, the whole experience builds and builds into a screaming fever pitch. Those with little imagination have compared it to carnal climax, but I liken it more to religious ecstasy. I have never felt more truly alive in my waking death than when I am taking the life of another person.
I didn't start small, with the gentle siphoning of blood from a lover in bed. I launched myself into the midst of my attackers like a fury from myth.
And I didn't just kill them. I tore them to pieces.
There were five or six men. I hadn't been able to keep count when they attacked, and I didn't bother counting them when I descended. They seemed to be one writhing, pulsating mass, a horde of insects best eradicated in a furious stomp of my boot. Before you found me, I wouldn't have been able to fight off one of them, let alone half a dozen. But your blood made me strong, stronger than any human had a right to be. It evaporated my fear and propelled me forward into their ranks, my mouth twisted into a snarl.
One of them looked over his shoulder and saw me coming, his face half-illuminated by the cooking fire.
He opened his mouth to shout. I wrapped my fingers around his upper and lower sets of teeth and wrenched his jaw apart before he had the chance.
The others fell so easily. I gouged eyes, snapped necks, fractured ribs, tore open the tender flesh of inner arms with my burgeoning teeth. My gums split, mingling my blood with the blood of my assailants, as I fed from them again and again. Only one of them tried to flee, staggering into the dark and right into your arms. You broke his leg with a swift, efficient kick, then sent him hobbling back my way like a parent turning around a wind-up soldier wandering too close to the playroom door.
When it was over, I stood unsteadily amidst the bodies, panting hard. I was satisfied with what I had done, with no treacherous regret creeping in at the edges, but I didn't feel exactly… satiated. The hunger was still there, quiet but present despite my churning stomach full of blood, and I didn't feel as clean and vindicated as I had hoped. The horror of being beaten while my family burned to death still existed, seared into my memory though my body no longer bore the marks. The appetite for revenge those men had sown in me was still there, curled up tight and sleeping fitfully.
I gasped for air, a sob bubbling up inside me. I didn't know why I was crying, but tears bore down on me like an oncoming storm.
"Come," you said, draping me in your cloak.
"Where are we going?" I asked, already staggering after you. The bodies lying in a desiccated heap around the still-smoldering fire were hideous, but not half as gruesome as what had been done to my entire village, my family.
You shot me a thin smile that made my heart swell.
Your home was half in ruins, covered by the slow creep of ivy and time. It was perched high above the village, in the craggy mountains where few of the common people ever ventured. Crumbling and faded, it looked almost abandoned. But all I saw was splendor. The fine parapets and oak doors and black peering windows. The way the tips of the towers seemed to puncture the grey sky, calling forth thunder and rain.
"Dark, lush and heartrendingly romantic."—Lyndall Clipstone, author of Lakesedge
- "A powerful take of possession and liberation. This is a Dracula retelling unlike any other - undeniable and unforgettable."—Rose Szabo, author of What Big Teeth
- "Stunningly gorgeous and devastatingly romantic, you won't want to miss this one!"—Katee Robert, author of Neon Gods
- "A dizzying nightmare of a romance that will leave you aching, angry and ultimately hopeful."—Hannah Whitten, author of For the Wolf
- "Atmospheric and lush. . . it will haunt you in the best possible way."—Genevieve Gornichec, author of The Witch's Heart
- "A thrilling and seductive Gothic rife with spine-tingling tension and dark romance. A Dowry of Blood left me breathless."—Alexis Henderson, author The Year of the Witching
- "A Dowry of Blood is an intoxicating perfume that lingers - an undying love story where beauty and horror clasp hands." —Rachel Gillig, author of One Dark Window
- “Seductive, lyrical, and rich with period detail, this daring retelling casts the Harkers' story aside to follow Dracula's medieval bride and her tangled romance with his consorts over the centuries. The horror—pulsing and beautiful—comes as much from Constanta’s insights into her husband’s psychology as it does from bloodlust. A dark triumph.”—Mary McMyne, author of The Book of Gothel
- "A Dowry of Blood is a delectable jewel of a tale, shimmering with dark, beautiful prose. Gibson balances mournful gothic possession with heartfelt emotional authenticity for a thrilling ride from start to finish."—Tori Bovalino, author of Not Good for Maidens
- "Perfect for readers interested in creative, gritty, and steamy horror retellings."—Library Journal
- "Gibson’s lush prose will transport readers to a sumptuous and provocative world that is openly queer and unabashedly sexual."—Booklist
- "A lyrical Gothic ode to queerness, polyamory, and violence. Its complex depiction of abuse and survival is both thorny and moving, and like nothing else you’ll read this fall."—Paste Magazine
- "In the tradition of the best vampire stories, Gibson uses her characters to explore how centuries of time would affect a once-mortal mind. A Dowry of Blood whisks readers through human history, arriving at the dawn of the 20th century, drenched in blood."—BookPage
- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages