AN INFERNAL red glow and rumble issued from Hardfor’s Ironworks. The perfect backdrop for our encounter, thought Clancy Marrowbone as his fangs descended, sharp and sleek as glass splinters. He pushed his companion against a blackened brick wall, wrapping them both in a winding sheet of bitter smoke and shadow, and tried to remember the man’s name.
Hunger made coherent thought difficult. A sensory flood swamped Marrowbone’s stalled mind. The man worked in this district. Somewhere. He’d been celebrating the end of his shift at one of the nondescript lusheries that dotted these filthy streets. His name was… was….
Jack Root? Marrowbone smiled at the aptness if not the accuracy of it as he dropped a hand to the freight in the man’s trousers.
“Gods!” Grasping Marrowbone's head, Root expelled more than pronounced the word, adding a blast of liquor-scented breath to the alley’s rotten reek.
“Present and accounted for.” Pulling off the hat he always wore in the city, Marrowbone brushed his lips over the throb of a pulse in Root’s neck. “But only the wicked ones.”
He flirted with the blood he was about to draw, teased himself with it. Ignoring smears of soot and whisker stubble, he licked along a vessel and felt the rushing murmur of its stream.
Root fumbled with the front of his trousers. “Damn it, man, take it out!”
“Glad to oblige.”
A reverberant clang came from within the foundry. Sparks danced in the darkness. With a delicate pop, Marrowbone’s fangs pierced the coarse skin of Jack Root’s throat. He sealed his lips around the punctures, and he sucked the blood out.
The abrupt surge of warmth and pleasure was dizzying.
A factory whistle shrieked. Root groaned. Dimly, Marrowbone felt a viscous drizzle of semen down his hand. But whose semen, he wasn’t sure. That consequence of the encounter was secondary.
Root’s large, booted feet slipped a little on the greasy cobblestones. Once he was sated, Marrowbone guided Root’s body down the wall. The back of his shirt sporadically caught on the bricks. Within a few seconds, he rested safely on his backside.
After moistening his handkerchief with the alcohol and scented water he always carried, Marrowbone wiped his mouth and again donned his hat, making certain his cascade of hair was tucked within it. He gazed down at his host and clucked in disapproval. “I’m afraid this is quite unacceptable.”
Root’s head lolled. His bent legs had flopped to either side. Not an attractive pose, granted, but not an uncommon one on a Saturday night. Being dead-drunk in an alley wouldn’t get Jack Root arrested.
However, his cock hanging out of his trousers might do it.
Marrowbone dropped to a squat, ushered Root’s little soldier back into his barracks, and gave him a few good-night pats.
“It’s been a pleasure, sir. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
THE ironmonger’s blood left Marrowbone feeling a bit torpid. Was there nobody in this godforsaken country who didn’t drink alcohol-based beverages or opiate-infused tonics? Purinton, the city in which he’d just dined, seemed especially cursed with inebriants.
Ruefully, the vampire smiled as he approached the stoop of a rubblestone house. How unfortunate he couldn’t feed here, in the adjacent village of Taintwell, where residents exercised more temperance. But the residents were almost all Mongrels. Other species’ blood was mixed with the human they carried, and most vampires could not safely ingest any sanguinary blend. Even if a meal consisted of pig blood, it at least had to be pure.
Ah, well. So he’d continue to find sustenance in the world’s begrimed cities, which offered people precious little escape from the tawdriness of their lives. Marrowbone couldn’t fault them for their indulgences. He had his own indulgences, silly creature that he was, and most had to do with his reckless egotism. Like his absurdly long, meringue-colored hair, which made him an easy target should a hunter ever to choose to pursue him. And a delight in vengeance that required only reflex, not reflection. And a fondness for strong, handsome, mortal men.
Yes, he was a fool. But he was resigned to it.
With his tongue, Marrowbone flipped the glowing stub of his cigarette toward his throat and swallowed it. The simple plank door of the residence suddenly seemed more of a pivot point than an entrance. Or exit.
Why am I here?
Hesitating, he skimmed a hand over the flower heads of a hydrangea bush crowding the stoop. His pallid fingers seemed to melt into the white petals.
Damn all the devils that govern me, why am I here?
He knew why. He’d been smitten by the unlikeliest of mortals. Although he had no intention of seeing the man, for doing so would court the man’s doom, he could at least find out how his former lover was faring.
Marrowbone lifted a hand and knocked, an action to which he was unaccustomed. He usually just appeared wherever he wanted to be. The planks felt abrasive to his skin. As he laconically studied his knuckles, the door swung open and exhaled soft lamplight.
The vampire looked up and smiled. His eyelids felt heavy, his lips numb. “Hello, Your Highness.”
Fanule Perfidor laughed. “I’m an eminence, not a highness.”
“Is there a difference?”
“An eminence is higher.”
Marrowbone’s smile widened. “Actually, I prefer Dog King. I like the grit of it. Eminence of Taintwell is rather too poufy, especially for you.”
More laughter, deep and resonant. Fan’s startling eyes even glimmered. He must be taking his tonic regularly to keep his moods level. Of course, having a live-in lover surely did wonders for one’s disposition as well. Marrowbone didn’t know with any certainty; he could only assume.
“I didn’t expect you to show up for another eight years,” Fan said. The greeting wasn’t unkind but simply carried surprise.
“Eight years and one-sixth,” Marrowbone amended, for he’d been gone twenty-two months. “Would you rather I left and then returned when you’re more prepared to see me?”
“Droll bastard.” Fan opened the door wider and stepped to one side. “Please, come in.”
“Thank you.” Giving his friend a final appreciative glance, Marrowbone glided into the house. Small wonder he and Fan had once had a heated affair. Even now, many years later, this Mongrel tantalized the vampire.
Fanule Perfidor, the titular leader of Taintwell, cut an imposing figure: tall and straight and slightly sinister, his bicolored eyes luminous beneath a dark storm of hair, his mouth stern yet sensuous. Ridges of scar tissue crested his ears, as lumpy and livid as erupting spinal columns. But they somehow complemented the Mongrel’s rough-hewn face.
Marrowbone had always puzzled over Perfidor’s lineage, reflected in the ratio tattooed at the base of his throat. What made up the 60% of him that wasn’t human? Fan either didn’t know or didn’t care to divulge what he knew.
It mattered not. That was his business.
“What’s wrong with you?” Fan asked as he followed his guest inside. “You seem unsteady.”
Marrowbone waved a hand. “Ah, it’s nothing. I just fed from a pub crawler on Burnditch Alley in the city. More than blood was coursing through those veins.” He licked what residue he could from the inside of his mouth and the tips of his half-retracted fangs. “Gin, I think. And laudanum.”
“That’s a stuporous combination.”
“I’m glad you understand.” Marrowbone sank into a corner of the sofa while his host sat in a nearby chair. “Where’s Will? I assume you two are still together.”
“Inseparably.” Fan tilted his chin toward the kitchen. “He’s having a bath.”
“That tin tub must get mighty crowded whenever you join him—as you surely often do.”
“We manage quite well.” Fan’s assurance came with a self-satisfied smile.
Marrowbone’s smirk faded at the sight of it. Did he really need to be reminded of other couples’ domestic bliss? Blinking against the homey glow of the lamplight, he lowered his gaze to his lap. The long fingers he’d splayed over his thighs had done a good deal of clutching over the past 600-odd nights, but they’d done no caressing. Not since—
“Fan, is somebody here?” Will Marchman called from the kitchen.
“Yes. It’s Clancy.”
A pregnant pause. “Marrowbone?”
Then a muttered “Oh dear,” with a hint of trepidation.
Keeping his eyes lowered, Marrowbone smiled. Fan’s partner, thoroughly human, wasn’t precisely a boy but often seemed like one. Still, he was a kind, valorous young man, passionately devoted to his Mongrel lover and undaunted by any disapproval or difficulties the world threw their way.
“Hello, Clancy,” Will said more loudly over a plash of water.
“Good evening, Will.”
“Aren’t you eight years early?”
“Eight and one-sixth.” Looking up at Fan, Marrowbone asked quietly, “He doesn’t still fear me, does he?”
Marrowbone rolled his eyes. He once again raised his voice to address Will. “You needn’t shorten your bath on my account. I won’t be here long.”
“That’s a shame,” Will said unconvincingly.
Giving in to muted laughter, Fan shook his head. “It isn’t that he doesn’t like you, you know. He’s just—”
“Wary of vampires, on principle,” Marrowbone murmured. And out came a sigh, unintentional but expressive.
Fan sat forward. “Something’s troubling you. What is it? Have you seen Bentcross?”
The question provoked another involuntary reaction. Marrowbone felt his brows jerk together. Damn it all, the mere mention of Simon’s name made him wince. Letting a mortal invade his heart had certainly come with a host of unexpected consequences.
Marrowbone eschewed any need that wasn’t of the most basic kind: sustenance, sexual release, and a safe haven in which to pass his vulnerable hours. Superfluous desires led to dangerous weakness. He didn’t want a mate, mortal or immortal.
Moreover, he dreaded being faced one day with the prospect of either turning Simon or witnessing his physical decline. Both options terrified him.
“No,” he said in answer to Fan’s question. “It wouldn’t be wise for me to see Mr. Bentcross.”
Marrowbone shrugged. He had to admit, some of his attempts to distance himself were rather pathetic.
“Then why have you come back?”
Trying to affect a careless air, Marrowbone crossed his legs and threw an arm over the back of the sofa. “I’d simply like to know how he’s doing. Curiosity is natural, wouldn’t you say? He and I grew rather close the last time I was here.”
Fan’s raised eyebrows said he knew better. “You and I were once ‘close’ as well, Clancy, but you still stayed away for ten years after you left Taintwell. This time, you couldn’t even manage a two-year absence.”
Marrowbone picked at the sofa’s worn upholstery. Of course there was a reason for the difference, but he refused to speak of it—as if voicing his feelings would give them more power.
“You could’ve simply written to me and asked about him,” Fan pointed out.
“But how could you have replied? It’s not as if I have a permanent address, you know.” Beginning to feel testy, Marrowbone shifted position. “How is Simon doing?”
Fan kept studying him. “Quite well. He followed through with his plan to set up an aeropod repair shop. It’s at the junction of Whitesbain Plank Road and Division Highway and gets a good deal of business.”
Without showing undue interest, Marrowbone nodded. He couldn’t seem to keep his fingers from tapping erratically on the sofa’s back.
“And he’s been working on a new invention with Ape Chiggeree.”
“Oh? Of what sort?”
“It’s the strangest thing,” Fan said with a chuckle. “A submersible sphere for underwater exploration. They call it the Bubble. Simon’s been playing with the design for years and finally perfected it with Ape’s help. I believe they’re about to cash in on a project that’s been launched by the province in conjunction with Oggsley College.”
“You don’t say,” Marrowbone drawled, although his interest was piqued. “But isn’t Oggsley College in Dentworth? That’s nowhere near the sea.” In fact, it was as far inland as one could get in Purin Province.
“Doesn’t matter. The project is headquartered in Purinton. It’s the provincial capital, and it is on the sea.” Fan peered toward the kitchen, as if he feared Will had either drowned or would shrivel like a prune.
“So what will this project entail?”
Fan settled back into his chair. “It has something to do with a study of Tower Hole and the waters around Floating Brick Island. You must be familiar with them. Or the island, at least.”
“I am indeed.”
A long time ago, before Dunwood Prison was erected, Floating Brick Island had supported a sprawling, grimy penal colony, then called a jail. Marrowbone remembered it well—the moss crawling over its limestone blocks like a contagion, the vermin scampering between cellblocks and sea. The jail’s central tower, a glowering structure complete with battlements, served as a coastal light. Enhanced by special lenses, the kerosene-fueled flame was visible for miles in all directions.
Vampires who traveled the coast—through cities like Ashpool, Tacking, Weedport, and Purinton—had often fed from the convicts trapped on Floating Brick. And they’d fed with impunity, since few people cared about the imprisoned men.
Although, in the course of his visits, Marrowbone had grown rather fond of a few convicts, Floating Brick had severely depressed his spirits. Not only were the cellblocks damp and dreary, but taking advantage of the unfortunates housed there was appallingly easy. They were, after all, caged like animals, and some were virtually immobilized by shackles. Marrowbone used to wonder how many had survived the violent hurricane that destroyed the jail, reducing its flaking stone blocks and crumbling mortar to a salt-encrusted pile of rubble.
Tower Hole was a subterranean abyss not far from the island. Legend had it the depression was as deep as the prison’s tower was high. Marrowbone recalled that either some bored fisherman or curious man of science had proved the legend wrong. Tower Hole’s size far exceeded that of its namesake. A sounding line hadn’t been long enough for its lead plummet to reach the sea floor. Another attempt resulted in the line being severed during its descent; it seemed to have caught on a rocky ledge. Henceforth, Purintonians lost interest in Tower Hole, content in the vague knowledge it was “damned deep.”
Apparently their interest had been rekindled.
“What are they hoping to find?” Marrowbone asked.
Fan turned up his hands. “I have no idea.”