WANTED - Bloodmaid of exceptional taste. Must have a keen proclivity for life’s finer pleasures. Girls of weak will need not apply.
A young woman is drawn into the upper echelons of a society where blood is power in this dark and enthralling Gothic novel from the author of The Year of the Witching.
Marion Shaw has been raised in the slums, where want and deprivation are all she know. Despite longing to leave the city and its miseries, she has no real hope of escape until the day she spots a peculiar listing in the newspaper seeking a bloodmaid.
Though she knows little about the far north—where wealthy nobles live in luxury and drink the blood of those in their service—Marion applies to the position. In a matter of days, she finds herself the newest bloodmaid at the notorious House of Hunger. There, Marion is swept into a world of dark debauchery. At the center of it all is Countess Lisavet.
The countess, who presides over this hedonistic court, is loved and feared in equal measure. She takes a special interest in Marion. Lisavet is magnetic, and Marion is eager to please her new mistress. But when she discovers that the ancient walls of the House of Hunger hide even older secrets, Marion is thrust into a vicious game of cat and mouse. She’ll need to learn the rules of her new home—and fast—or its halls will soon become her grave.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Print pages: 304
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House of Hunger
To bleed is to be.
—vanessa, first bloodmaid of the house of hunger
Before she was first bled, when she still had the name her parents gave her, Marion Shaw was a maid at a townhouse in the South of Prane. On that morning—the morning she would later come to identify as the beginning of her second life—she knelt on the hard wood floor of the parlor, sleeves rolled up to her bony elbows, a scrub brush in her hand.
Across the room, in an upholstered armchair, Lady Gertrude sat, watching her work. She was a shrewd woman, blue-eyed with silver hair and a pinched aristocratic nose, spattered with age spots and freckles. While other nobles preferred to leave their maids to their labor, Lady Gertrude preferred instead to preside over them, watching with a falcon’s eye as if to ensure that her help earned every penny she paid them.
“You missed a spot,” she sneered, seizing her cane to point at a minuscule stain on the floorboards.
Marion batted a dark curl out of her eye. She did what little she could to mind her tone. “I’ll be more careful, milady.”
“You ought to be. There’s girls more handsome and less sluggish than you who’d be happy to have your position,” she said, and she bit down on a brittle tea cookie, spitting crumbs when she spoke again. “You’ve grown slow . . . and lazy. I can see it in your eyes. The little light there was in them has long gone out, and now you expect to drag yourself through my halls on your hands and knees like a common drunk. With your hair unkempt and your apron stained—”
“Rest assured this floor will be spotless by the time I’m through with it,” said Marion, cutting her short. She could feel the rage pooling in the pit of her belly like bile. “You have
At this, Lady Gertrude merely frowned, the slack skin of her brow wrinkling like fabric. Marion couldn’t help but think that she was rather lonely. Long widowed, without children of her own, or companions or family to speak of, she had no means of social stimulation apart from Sunday mass. Thus, every day she followed Marion from room to room, watching her scrub the floors and polish the silver, sometimes (if her health allowed it) going so far as to trail after her into the kitchens, where she’d remain until her aching knees drove her back to the comfort of her parlor.
Marion polished the floor until she could see her own reflection in it—wide-set eyes gaping back at her, a firm nose and full lips slightly parted, tongue tucked behind her teeth, skin a deep tawny, hair a mess of curls. She frowned at herself just as the church bells rang twelve. With a ragged sigh, Marion peeled her gaze from her own reflection, dropped her scrub brush into the bucket with a splash, and pressed slowly to her feet.
In accordance with the new labor laws, all workers were promised an hour’s rest at the top of their seventh hour of work, a precautionary measure enacted after no fewer than six girls worked themselves to death after twenty-hour shifts in a cotton mill. And while Lady Gertrude was not a particularly kind woman, she was a great adherent to order and strict regulation, regardless of whether it was a benefit to her. Thus, when the clock struck noon, she was quick to dismiss Marion.
Unlike many of her set, Lady Gertrude couldn’t afford to buy herself a townhome more than a spitting distance from the more . . . unsightly corners of Prane, and it took Marion only a few minutes to reach the cusp of the slums. Here, Marion’s pace quickened and she felt her spirits lift, if only slightly.
Gradually, the fine brick townhomes gave way to shanties and warehouses, cast in a pall of smog. Marion shouldered down the crowded streets of the stockyards and adjoining meat market, trudging through half-frozen manure and past the racks of cattle corpses that hung, swinging, by the hooves. Instinctively, she rounded her shoulders against the blast of the coming cold. Fall had only just begun, but it was unseasonably chilly that day and the streets were thick with snow and slush.
Outside, the crowds spread through the stockyards, rounding the corrals where the cattle huddled—shuddering from the cold or the fear of the coming butchery or both. Marion trained her eyes on her boots as she passed them by. Almost ten years of walking every day through the stockyards and she still couldn’t bring herself to look those beasts in the eye.
kept walking. The seething smog was low-slung, and so thick that the sun could barely shine through it. The streets were thronged, as they always were at midday. Crowds gathered around the vendor stalls, and if Marion had coin to spare on a bit of roast eel or herring, she might have joined them. But she didn’t, so she went about her way, navigating the crowds and icy streets, snow slush leaking into her boots as she walked.
A vicious wind circled down the alleys and ripped at her coat as she neared her favorite place to sit, a dark doorstep at the back of an abandoned warehouse, on the cusp of Prane, overlooking the trenches and the long scar of the northern railroad beyond them.
It began to rain, and Marion retreated into the shadow of the awning, fishing a pack of matches and her last cigarette from the back pocket of her coat. She lit the smoke and nursed it, cupping her hand to shield it from the wind. Between draws she wheezed and shivered, blowing smoke through her fingers to warm them.
The cigarettes did wonders to calm her hunger pangs, and at a halfpenny a pack they were far cheaper than the offerings of the roadside food vendors, who, as far as Marion was concerned, always overcharged.
“If it ain’t the jewel of Prane.”
Marion turned to see Agnes wading toward her through the thick of the crowds. She raised a hand and Marion greeted her with two raised middle fingers in turn. Agnes was a gaunt, jaundiced matchstick girl with pale brown eyes and thinning hair that she wore in a braid that hung, like a rat’s tail, down her back. Like Marion, Agnes had spent the early years of her childhood pickpocketing on busy street corners. In fact, that was how they’d met, and they soon learned that thievery was a trade better suited to two. Agnes would act as the distraction—chatting nonsense with their targets, keeping them occupied—while Marion crept up from behind to nab a coin purse or slip a silk handkerchief from the breast coat of a passing lord. But at age ten, when the legal repercussions of thievery became too steep, Agnes had taken up honest work on the factory line where she made matches—dipping wooden sticks into sulfur—from dawn until dusk. Soon after, Marion secured a position as the scullery maid of Lady Gertrude.
Still, despite their new occupations, every day at noon the two girls made a point to converge at the same street corner where they’d first met. But Marion and Agnes weren’t friends, because Marion didn’t have friends. The way she saw it, friends were a luxury reserved for people who had the spare time to spend with them—like the girls who wandered Main Street with their parasols and bone-white gloves, retiring to their parlors in the
afternoon to take a bit of tea and talk. No. Girls like Marion and Agnes had no use or time for companions. They were simply fixtures in each other’s lives, a part of Prane’s habitat, like the reeking miasma and the crows and the rats that roamed the streets in packs at night.
Marion passed Agnes the nub of her cigarette and slipped both hands into her skirt pockets, doing what little she could to keep herself warm. She had another five hours of work ahead of her, and it was hard to scrub floors with cold-stiff fingers.
Agnes pulled on her cigarette in silence, the smoke leaking through the gaps of her missing teeth. She looked haggard from the time she’d spent slaving away on the line, breathing the toxic phosphorous fumes day in and day out until the chemical stench filled her up like a second spirit. That was something Marion’s mother used to say. That folks in Prane had two souls—one made of the stuff of the heavens, the other from miasma.
Agnes took a final pull on her cigarette and flicked the butt into the trenches. “Ugly day, isn’t it?”
Marion shrugged. “No worse than the others.”
“But it is. The days are shorter than they ever were before, the nights are longer. And the sun, it doesn’t rise as high as it used to. I swear it. The summers aren’t as warm. Fall is shorter. The winters are colder.” Agnes shook her head. “I can feel the change.”
“Prane doesn’t change,” said Marion, and it was true. Prane was the northernmost city of the South. It existed in the rift between the worlds—the arctic North and the punishing heat of the industrial South. And so, Prane was never one thing or another. In the night, the light of the city was such that it seemed the sun never fully set; in the day, the gray pall of smog made it seem like it never fully rose. Thus, the slums of Prane felt much like a realm caught between, in perpetual indecision, as if the skies couldn’t decide what they wanted to be.
Never fully day. Never fully night.
Never anything at all.
And though she knew nothing else, Marion had come to hate that indistinction . . . and most everything else about Prane too. She sometimes wondered if there was a single person in the slums who found something, anything, to love about the place. Agnes, for her part, seemed resigned, even content. But begrudging contentment was not the same as happiness. At best it was familiarity, and at worst defeat. It certainly wasn’t the same as true fondness.
Marion lowered herself to the stoop beside Agnes, wincing a little as the snowmelt seeped through her skirts. Her gaze drifted north. In the distance, she could just make out the night train’s station on the cusp of Prane—a beautiful structure of glass and iron with its own clock tower that only ever called the hours of the night. Marion had visited the station only
once, on her eighth birthday. She had begged her mother to let her see it, in lieu of a proper birthday gift. And so, that evening, they had ventured down to the station.
Marion’s mother had lifted her up onto her hip to peer into the night train’s windows, and she had caught the briefest glimpse of its cabin—its seats upholstered with red velvet, its windows draped with brocade and dyed silks. Each cabin was lit by the shimmering chandeliers that dangled from the ceilings. They didn’t care that the men in the three-piece suits scowled at their presence, or that the women clutched their skirts and coin-fat purses closer at their approach.
Marion and her mother had merely laughed and smiled and watched in awe as the northerners (you could tell them apart from the touring southerners based on their fine clothes and the way they tilted their chins, just so) boarded the train and settled themselves for the journey north. There was a bloodmaid among them, a black-haired girl with a fine mink muff who smiled at Marion through the window. At seven past twelve, Marion and her mother watched from the platform as that great, black-iron beast roared to life and charged into the dark of the night.
Every time she heard the keen peal of the night train’s horn, she felt the same stirring in the marrow of her bones that she had as a child, standing on the platform alongside her mother. She loved the sound and the feeling of the train’s approach. Sometimes she imagined herself onboard—sitting among the northern nobles and men of Parliament—a gilded, one-way ticket in her pocket that cost more than ten times what a maid like Marion earned in a year.
Agnes eyed her through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Still looking north?”
“Nothing else to look at.”
“Then I suppose you won’t be wanting this.” Agnes reached into the shadows of her coat and withdrew a folded newspaper. She stole one every day, in a kind of unspoken agreement, an important part of their ritual. Agnes brought the stolen paper, and Marion the cigarettes, and together they made the most of what little time they had to spare.
The wind tore at the edges of the newspaper as Agnes opened it and spread it flat across their thighs. They didn’t bother with the headline stories—long articles about taxes and tariff wars and cholera outbreaks in the slums. Instead, they skipped to their favorite section, the matrimonial advertisements at the back of the paper.
It was the top of the week, so there was a large selection of adverts to comb through. One for a respectable physician seeking a maiden wife. Another for a widowed cleric with a parish in the country in want of a wife of “impeccable morals” and a mother for his nine
children (he requested that the lucky woman be no older than two and twenty). At the bottom corner of the page, an advert for a self-described spinster, aged thirty-eight, seeking a bachelor of fortune to receive with “kindness and affection.”
Marion and Agnes read each of these adverts in their best mockery of a posh accent, illustrating the postings with wild imaginings about the appearances of the subjects, their homes and lives and favorite proclivities.
“He might be a fit for you,” said Agnes, with a sly smile. She tapped an ad for a navy officer in want of a “wholesome” maiden, and Marion laughed aloud. She was many things, but wholesome she was not. Virtue, in the conventional sense, had never become her. At twenty, she’d shared beds with several women, and she enjoyed indulging readily in the delights of the flesh. She and Agnes had had a brief tryst one summer, but there was no real feeling between them, and things had ended badly. They’d since decided they were better smoking companions than lovers.
Agnes squinted down at the paper. “At a salary of four hundred a year maybe he’d be a fit for me too. I could be a maiden.”
“Somehow I have a hard time picturing that,” said Marion, turning the newspaper’s page. And it was then that she saw it, an advertisement in the midst of the matrimony column. Unlike the other postings, it was printed in the most peculiar shade of scarlet. And the letters were different, larger and filigreed, the dips and curves of each one sweeping into the next like cursive. It read:
WANTED: Bloodmaid of exceptional taste. No more than 19. Must have a keen proclivity for life’s finer pleasures. No references required. Candidates will be received by mail at The Night Embassy, 727 Crooks Street, Prane, or personally from 10 to 12 in the evening hours. Girls of weak will need not apply.
Below the posting was a crest—the crude face of a frowning man with olive branches in his hair—the seal of the House of Hunger, one of the largest, and most feared, in the North.
Agnes hissed through her teeth at the sight of it.
In Prane, bloodmaids were regarded as symbols of opulence and depravity in almost equal measure. They were said to spend their days as the cosseted charges of their noble, northern masters—strumming harps, powdering their upturned noses, studying arts and languages, stuffing their cheeks with frosted tea cakes and chocolates and other delightful confections to sweeten their blood to the taste.
The worst of their job was the bleeding, which bloodmaids did frequently to satisfy the carnivorous appetites of the nobles, who relied on the healing properties of their blood as a lavish remedy for their varying ailments. According to the newspapers, blood was purported to cure a number of diseases including, but not limited to, tuberculosis, rubella, measles, syphilis, rickets, and arthritic pains. Some even believed that blood contained youth-preserving properties, especially when taken directly from the source and consumed while still warm.
But the way Marion saw it, work was work, and the work of a bloodmaid was far easier than that of the average factory hand in Prane. Besides, Marion had heard it rumored that upon the end of their tenure bloodmaids were rewarded with lavish pensions that ensured they’d live their remaining days in accordance to the same standard of luxury they’d been accustomed to during their time as bloodmaids. Marion had heard stories of retired bloodmaids being gifted seaside villas, even entire estates, in the Southern Isles, complete with full households—footmen, drivers, stable hands, and even bloodmaids of their own.
Agnes glowered down at the newspaper. “They’ve got some nerve to advertise a posting for a blood-whore in the matrimony column, of all places.”
In the South, the prejudice against bloodmaids ran deep, and Agnes was far from the only person in Prane who harbored ill feelings toward the blood trade. Some girls, even beautiful ones, refused to consider the position of bloodmaid as a matter of principle. Such was the stigma against the profession. Marion had heard it said, many times over, that mothers would rather see their daughters become harlots on the streets of Prane than bloodmaids in the North. And many a southern priest had preached from the pulpit about the immortal dangers of bleeding, the toll that dark work took on the body and soul. There were ample rumors about girls drained of blood and spirit, returning to the South penniless and pale after years of bleeding with nothing but their scars to show for it.
“Where else would you have them place it? A bloodmaid could hardly be called a servant.”
“Well, they’re far from wives,” said Agnes, and when she spewed the words, she flecked the newspaper with spit. “Whoring for a night lord is nothing like a marriage.”
Marion saw little difference between the two. Both the act of becoming a bloodmaid and the act of becoming a wife were a kind of amalgamation of fealty and flesh, blood and fidelity. And why sell yourself to a penniless man when you could sell yourself to a lord of the
North? “I don’t see how the two are so different. I’d rather bleed to sate the appetite of a night lord than bleed on the birthing bed, bearing the children of a man I hardly love.”
An ugly wind ripped down the alleyway, so violent it nearly snatched the newspaper from Marion’s hand. But she held fast, folding it quickly and slipping it into the inner pocket of her coat for safekeeping.
Agnes studied her with a furrowed brow, and Marion could see the silent accusation in her eyes: traitor. But before Agnes had the chance to open her mouth and say it, to warn Marion of the North and all its horrors, the dull toll of the church bells echoed down the alley, beckoning them back to their work.
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