For a while now, when I’ve managed to post at all, I’ve been hinting about the new novel I’ve been working on, Checks and Balances. It’s rather different from the Cavaliers, being a very British thriller, with dystopian elements. It’s also finally finished. I could go on all day about my inspirations and the plot and characters, and how much I’ve enjoyed writing it, but instead, I’m going to jump straight in, and provide the first chapter. Enjoy!
Comments are very welcome, as are beta reading volunteers.
The Peak District, Year Eight of the First Lord and Eternal Blessed First Lady’s Glorious Regime. June.
I stepped out of the rickety lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together. What desperate plan or restrictive new decree did he intend to announce today?
David stood under the screen that showed our hacked CCTV camera feeds. Years of outdoor living and physical labour had given him the muscular tone and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. I pushed through the massed ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in hardy, unflattering outfits, and took my exalted position directly opposite our leader.
Michaela leaned against the reinforced metallic wall of the abandoned mine, shivering in the English summer chill. Her wavy obsidian-black hair had grown out of the practical cropped style we all sported, and into an elegant bob. She’d swapped her usual guerrilla uniform for a vintage silk gown someone had decided would pass muster in London. The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues.
I glanced from her to David. “What’s going on? I haven’t seen Michaela in weeks, and now she’s glammed up like the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s Army. Are we punishing her for flouting your arbitrary rules, or is the new style your doing?”
David crossed his arms. “I’m sending Michaela to Somerset House. She’s going to find her way into the First Lord’s presence. She’s going to charm him and allow herself to be seduced. She’s going to gain his trust and steal his secrets. And when the time is right, she’s going to kill him.”
His unblinking eyes and fixed mouth dared me to defy him in front of his supporters. He should have known I could never resist a challenge.
I bunched my fists. “That’s insane. The First Lord has his pick of the girls in the capital. Even if he did choose Michaela, she’d be a moment’s entertainment to him, not a military confidante, and she wouldn’t get within a mile of him with a weapon. Worse, there’s a chance that far from seducing him, she’ll be seduced and used against us. Julien can be very charming, very persuasive.”
“I am a loyal servant of the Treaty,” Michaela snapped. “I’ve been a member since it was founded, since I was a young girl. My father gave his life to kill the First Lord’s wife. The Treaty brought me up. I didn’t walk in off the street with no history like you.”
I thought of the tiny, shy, twelve-year-old I’d met when I’d first thrown myself on the Treaty’s mercy, five long years ago. I struggled to reconcile her with this beautiful, arrogant, seventeen-year-old ingénue.
I grabbed Michaela by her billowing, ribboned sleeves. “I didn’t ‘walk in off the street’, Michaela. I left behind my life as the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s army, because I believed in the cause. It’s easy to be loyal when you’ve known nothing else, when you owe the Treaty everything. I made sacrifices to serve.”
I’d told the lie so often my mind instantly conjured a clear image of Oliver Bonham, the senior army officer who’d never existed. It amazed me that all of them, even David, had bought my story when I’d turned up at their camp and continued to believe it.
David grabbed hold of me from behind and broke my grip on Michaela’s arms. I trained every day, but my strength was still no match for his.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Melanie. The Regime bombed both Derby and Hull this month for their sympathy to our cause. The army wiped out an entire platoon last week. There’ve been too many deaths, too many prisoners. Everything you say may be true, but we need to use every weapon at our disposal. We need to find out where the Regime plans to strike next, and we need to stop the First Lord once and for all.”
“You’d know, I suppose. You and your PhD in politics.”
David claimed to be a working class hero, but he’d spent longer at Oxford than I had, and came from a much wealthier background. Token student protests about global warming and globalisation had mutated into something more extreme once the First Lord and Lady came to power. In a different world, he’d have become a professor and written the occasional scathing article for the New Statesman. Instead, he shot down helicopters and interrogated captured soldiers. As did I.
He released me, without rising to the bait, and turned to the computer’s controls. The Regime strictly controlled internet access, but the Treaty attracted plenty of support from the technological fringes of society. They’d managed to set up a functioning computer network underground, and enabled us not only to use the internet freely, but to view most security cameras at will. Luckily for us, with Government focussed on war and the borders closed, British technology had barely progressed over the last decade, making our hackers’ jobs far easier than they’d be in more progressive societies. .
David set the feed to show Somerset House from the Strand. Its elegant arches and columns formed a stark contrast to the grey, utilitarian network of abandoned mines and tunnelled caves where I spent my nights after long days of raids on nearby towns, manning anti-aircraft posts and watching for Regime troops.
I tried not to torture myself with sights from my old life, but Somerset House’s beauty wasn’t what David wanted us to reflect on. He wanted us to see the heavily armed soldiers guarding the gate and pacing the street. The helicopters hovering above. The giant banner with the First Lord’s winged unicorn insignia hanging above the archway, and the two even larger portraits that fanned down either side. Honour the First Lord demanded the one on the left, above an image of a striking man in replica nineteenth century military uniform. Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion on the right-hand side. The woman in that painting appeared as studiedly fragile and innocent as Marie-Antoinette’s idea of a shepherdess, despite the Treaty regarding her as having been a psychotic she-devil.
They were symbols of the Regime’s power and illustrations of why we fought. And in the case of the painfully rococo portrait of the Treaty’s most high-profile victim, a reminder of what the organisation could accomplish. All designed to make me agree that Michaela should take her chances.
“Let me go instead.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I thought through the implications of what I was saying, before I considered the madness of it. It could be my chance, at last, but equally, it could be suicide.
Everyone stared, trying to find the nicest way to raise the obvious objection.
“Look at yourself,” Michaela spat, after the silence had gone on too long. “Don’t you realise you’re old? They say you were beautiful once, but you couldn’t seduce secrets out of a minor official anymore, never mind the First Lord.”
Her words stung, but I fought hard to keep any signs of hurt off my face. In my old, privileged life, I’d had every hope and expectation of still radiating youth and beauty at thirty-five. Few things hold back the clock like wealth and power. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in abandoned mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery.
David gave Michaela one of his patented “gentle looks”: an innocuous sideways glance, a half-smile. From anyone else, it would have been utterly unremarkable, but it shocked her into a guilty silence more effectively than a lesser man’s glare or shouted reprimand. The leader of the resistance could communicate a hell of a lot with just his eyes. He shared the trait with his greatest enemy.
David put a muscular arm round my waist, and I managed not to flinch. I’d almost grown used to his touch over the years. He’d never dream of forcing himself on a woman, and as far as he knew, I enjoyed our embraces every bit as much as he did. In reality, I slept with him because I needed security, I needed status, and I needed secrets. Plenty of women, both those who fought for the Treaty and those loyal to the Regime with overactive imaginations, found his cropped blond hair, bright eyes, and sculpted figure to be attractive, but I kept my heart safely out of proceedings. There was only one man I’d ever loved. Only one man I ever would love.
“Melanie, you’re still beautiful. But the evidence shows that, like all powerful men throughout history, Julien takes mistresses in their late teens and early twenties.”
I put my hands to my head and tried to push away the awful mental images his words created. How many mistresses had there been? How young and how beautiful?
“Precisely. Michaela would be one in a long line. I could provide something different. We’re the same age, I believe, the First Lord and I. I can offer shared memories and experiences. I can wave my ex-husband’s name around and claim the Treaty have held me prisoner for all this time. If I pretend to feed him information, perhaps I can get some in return. I believe Michaela when she says she’s committed, but you must have heard the stories. No seventeen year old can be relied upon to stand against his charm, his beauty, the glow in his eyes, the way he contemplates people like he can see into their soul and makes them feel like they’re the only person in the room.”
No seventeen year old could resist the insistent touch of his hands. The arms that make you feel protected against any dangers. The kisses that make you lose all control.
“And you think you’re immune, do you? Far beyond that sort of childish infatuation at the grand old age of thirty-five?”
Now it was my turn to get “the look”, but I’d developed some immunity to that, too. I made determined eye contact, refusing to glance away as his blue eyes burned into mine.
“I think I’ve developed a little cynicism. I think I’ve come to understand the games people play at court. I think I’ve stopped believing in love. I’m quite confident I can stand before Julien St John Helmsley without falling to my knees in paroxysms of lust and adoration.”
I’d never been less confident of anything in my life.
“Perhaps you’re scared, David.” The others had wisely stayed quiet so far, but now Christopher, David’s de facto second-in-command in spite of his youth, stepped into the fray. He looked like a taller and more muscular version of Michaela, with his silky black hair and the huge, dark eyes that made him appear disconcertingly sweet. “You’ll send my sister because the end justifies the means, but you can’t bear the thought of your woman in the First Lord’s bed.”
Christopher chose his words well. David would never willingly admit to traditional attitudes like jealousy or having a woman who was “his”. Furthermore, he prided himself on always putting the Treaty and the ultimate goal of overthrowing the First Lord and freeing the country over every consideration. He’d always claimed he would give his life. The least he could do was give my virtue.
David punched the rickety lift doors. “Of course I can’t bear the thought of her in that bastard’s bed. I can’t bear the thought of any woman suffering that fate. I can’t bear the thought of the man who destroyed Nottingham, blockaded the north, and took away the country’s most basic rights touching anyone or experiencing any earthly pleasure. I can’t bear the thought he’s still alive, still ruling us all, after so many good men have died. I can’t bear the thought of him, full stop.”
David’s attitude was hardly unusual in our circles. People generally didn’t risk their life by joining the Treaty unless they despised and disapproved of the First Lord and his Regime. But for most of my fellow rebels, Julien functioned as an abstract symbol of everything they believed had gone wrong with the country. David hated him in an oddly personal way.
I touched David’s arm. He spun towards me and raised his hand. For a second, I held my breath and braced myself, but he dropped his arm and regained composure. I allowed myself to breathe again, thankful not to face the same fate as the door. For all my grandstanding, I’d never coped well with physical pain.
“We all feel that way,” I soothed. “And that’s why we have to do this, and we have to do it right. How exactly do you expect Michaela to get herself admitted into his presence? She might wander the capital for weeks and never find an opening. But as the returning wife of a war hero, I’m sure I could approach some colonel or other and beg an audience.”
David bowed his head. I had no wish to know what thoughts of old atrocities were running through his mind. The screams as Regime bombers turned Nottingham into a wasteland. Paul, the Treaty’s first martyr, tortured to death. Treaty Members and suspected Treaty affiliates rounded up and imprisoned or worse.
“You’ll both go,” he snapped. “Claim you’re distant cousins or something. Let the great ruler decide whether he prefers youth or experience. Just make him fall for one or both of you, make him talk, and then destroy him.”
Michaela and I nodded our heads in sync, all thoughts of our early argument put aside. David had spoken, and there was no point in arguing with him when he slipped into this mood.
“You’ll need to go to the infirmary and have them fit you with a hormonal implant,” I said to Michaela, gentler now. I touched the characteristic raised bump on my upper arm. “You’ll never pass as a loyal citizen without one, and we don’t want you carrying the First Lord’s heir.”
Michaela shuddered. The Treaty regarded avoiding the implants as a key sign of resistance. Nonetheless, after a moment’s hesitation, she let herself into the lift. Mercifully, it was still functioning, despite David taking his temper out on it. Presumably, she was heading for the tunnel where we’d developed a makeshift health centre.
Why had I talked myself into this? An unknown, pretty commoner like Michaela could try her hand and would either strike it lucky or return home defeated. And if I were really the imprisoned wife of an army hero, I’d have a pleasant homecoming and some sharp questioning.
But neither of those descriptions applied to me, and I’d face one of two fates. I’d be either shot on sight or welcomed back into the fold like the prodigal son.
I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. No one else would dare to make the decision, so my fate would be entirely in the hands of the First Lord. And while people called him many things, no one ever accused Julien St John Helmsley of being predictable.
God knows I possessed no loyalty to the Treaty, but leaving them behind still disconcerted me. I’d often felt trapped, surrounded by so many people, but companionship offered a degree of security. Both Michaela and I knew how to fight and how to survive in the wild, but part of my brain still screamed that horrible fates awaited women who wandered alone in the wilderness.
Michaela carried the glamourous dress she’d modelled in her backpack, and I’d packed a similar relic of my old life. The slightly outdated styles would fit with our claims of imprisonment. For the rigours of the journey, we both wore our usual outfits of cargo pants and tank tops, with a padded jacket over the top. Thanks to the controls the Regime had put in place, we couldn’t take a train without showing ID or travel by road without passing several checkpoints. London was unreachable. Instead, we laboured on foot towards York, where we’d throw ourselves on the mercy of the city garrison controlling the north. I’d introduce myself and seek safe passage to Somerset House and a re-admittance to court. I’d decide what to do with Michaela when we got there.
Freed from the need to impress the senior men of the Treaty, Michaela reverted to the sweet young girl I’d once known. Just like she had years ago, she besieged me with questions about the capital. About the court. About the ruthless men of the army and their glamourous wives. About Julien.
“Do you think he’ll take me as a mistress?” she asked one evening, as we hiked along a rough path under low-hanging trees. The swagger in her voice when she’d discussed the prospect in the camp morphed into a kind of all-consuming fear.
I passed her the hip flask and she took a good swig of the rough moonshine within. I wished it was a single malt, but its fiery taste helped to drive away both the chill and the fear. “Honestly? I don’t know. I was only the wife of a mid-ranking officer, remember? I’m no expert on his whims.”
“They say he’s incapable of love. I hear what the refugees and defectors say. There are many mistresses, but there’s no emotion. He sees the beautiful women as no different to the impregnable palace and the fine wines.”
I glanced at her. Her bloodshot eyes and washed-out face mirrored my internal exhaustion. We’d avoided all but the smallest villages, and these wild expanses sapped our energy. “The last thing you want is for him to love you. You can manipulate lust. Love can destroy everything in its path.”
She nodded. “It’s not true though, is it? The First Lord’s not genuinely incapable of love. The mistresses might be mere playthings, but I’ve seen the posters of his wife on foraging missions in the cities. The Eternal Blessed First Lady. The mistresses don’t get posters. Surely, they show he loved her, before my father killed her to break his spirit.”
I shrugged and resisted the temptation to point out that, far from breaking his spirit, losing his wife just seemed to have pushed Julien over the edge. I always wondered what had become of Christopher and Michaela’s father, Michael, David’s second-in-command before my arrival.
“Posters prove nothing. He just likes to remind people the Treaty killed her. It helps to keep the populace’s mind turned against us.” David would have been proud of my rhetoric.
“Did you know her?”
It was useless. Two days walk from the Treaty encampment and Michaela had already filled her mind with romantic fantasies. If she came before Julien, he wouldn’t even have to turn on the charm. She was already in love with the idea of courtly love and tragic romance.
“The woman on the posters? Waist-length spirals of golden hair, tremulous blue eyes and a pious, innocent gaze? No, I never knew the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”
“But you knew the person behind the pictures?”
Perhaps I’d over-estimated sweet Michaela’s naiveté.
“I met her once or twice, from a distance, at military events. I keep telling you, my husband was just a mid-ranking officer.”
“Halt! Who goes there?”
I cursed as the army patrol stepped out of the trees and onto the path, hemming us in. Normally, I walked with my senses finely attuned to any hint of danger, but I’d allowed myself to become far too absorbed in Michaela’s questions. She’d stirred up old memories until I’d lost all sense of my surroundings. Might they buy the line that I was the wife of a mid-ranking army officer?
The soldiers’ long red coats wouldn’t have looked out of place at Waterloo or Lexington, but they were Kevlar-lined and made to the latest technical standards. The bright colours and elegantly lethal tailoring brought back memories of another time. Once, the sight of the First Lord’s army had meant safety. Once, they’d bowed. Even through my mounting panic, I still struggled to regard them as a true threat.
The short soldier to my left hit Michaela in the stomach with the butt of his rifle and pushed her against the tree as she screamed, and I snapped back to the reality of the situation.
“Who are you and where have you come from?” the short man asked as he fiddled with his belt.
A second solider took a firm grip of my arm, but I seemed to offer less sport than Michaela.
The third solider, this one taller and scrawnier, addressed Michaela. “Respectable women don’t walk on the moors alone. Are you whores of the Treaty?”
When she didn’t answer, he walked over and slapped her face. At least it distracted the first soldier from whatever degradations he’d been planning.
“Is that a no? If you’re not some Treaty slut then bow before our beloved Lord.”
I swivelled my head around in panic, but of course, Julien wasn’t there in person. The third solider reached into his bag and pulled out a framed photograph of the First Lord. Even in a miniature reproduction, at a distance of ten metres, his green eyes seemed to bore into mine. Tremors ran through my body, and my captor tightened his hold.
“Bow before the First Lord,” the soldier repeated, slapping Michaela again while the first solider loosened his grip to allow her space to accede to their request.
Bow, I willed Michaela. Just bow, once, and we might actually make it out of here alive. According to the new constitution, everyone must bow before the First Lord and before images and statues of him, which dominated most parts of the country. But when anyone joined the Treaty, they made a solemn vow never to do so, no matter the provocation. It’s one of our organisation’s defining features, and the rebel leaders had drilled the rule into Michaela since childhood.
You’re on a spy mission. The usual rules don’t apply. You were planning to sleep with the First Lord. Of course you have David’s dispensation to bow to his image to protect our cover. Didn’t he tell you this? Didn’t he explain how you needed to behave?
Michaela shook her head and spat at the image. I flinched, both with the foresight of what this would mean for the two of us, and an old remembered sense of wrongness, an old memory of the first time I’d seen someone defile Julien’s image. I’d known Michaela wasn’t up for the task. She’d fallen at the first hurdle, too thoroughly indoctrinated to make the right choice.
The first soldier punched her in the face, and she slumped forward. Before, they’d been showing off their power and toying with a beautiful woman for their own twisted sense of amusement. Now, though, she’d angered them. It seemed Julien still had some truly loyal minions.
I thought of the gun in my pocket. Though by no means the world’s greatest shot, I was competent. David—and before him, my husband—had long ago made sure of that. If I distracted the guard who had me in his grasp, I could reach it and get one shot off before they overpowered me. The first soldier had his trousers around his ankles. It would be satisfying to shoot him in the face, before he had his sick way with Michaela, but then what? The second I fired, they’d turn their guns on me.
I saw it all. She would talk. She would damn us as Treaty spies. But before that, she would to suffer.
“How about you?” the man gripping me demanded. “Will you bow before your leader?”
He released his hold on me and reached for an identical photograph. Pale skin. Black hair. Pronounced cheekbones and sculpted lips. I tried to avert my eyes. Holding an image of Julien this close to me was like thrusting a crucifix in a vampire’s face.
The sensible approach would be to bow, but the first soldier had a screaming Michaela on the ground, and I suspected the moment for compromise and collaboration had passed.
“Actually, I’m not required to bow,” I replied.
“Everyone must bow before the First Lord,” he snapped.
I reached for my gun while the soldier remained bamboozled by his indignation. He flinched back at the sight, but I had no interest in him. Before anyone could gather their wits and try to stop me, I aimed and fired a single bullet straight into Michaela’s skull.
The shot was better than I’d hoped. She didn’t even have time to scream before her suffering ended, along with the risk of her saying anything she shouldn’t. I thought of the little girl I’d first met and of the sparky young creature I’d come to know over the last few days, with her hopes of romance. I didn’t regret my decision, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Story of my life.
The soldiers froze in a moment of stunned silence, and in the confusion, I thought I might be able to get another shot off after all. But the soldier who’d been holding me all along pulled me into a headlock. The others drew their guns and surrounded me.
“Drop your weapon,” the second soldier cried.
I considered blurting out my whole story, but I doubted they’d believe me.
“I’ll drop it,” I replied, fighting to keep the tremor out of my voice. “Just promise you’ll take me to the nearest barracks. There’s something I need to tell your commanding officer.”
The second soldier nodded. I dropped the gun, and while my captor kept a tight hold, the third soldier slammed his rifle into the back of my head. Sickening pain reverberated through me, before I slipped into darkness.
The dim strip lights on the roof did little to alleviate either the dinginess of the windowless room I woke up in, or the throbbing in my head. My captors had secured me to a sturdy metal chair, and the three of them now milled around, accompanied by a few other soldiers of the First Lord’s army.
“I see you’re awake,” the taller of the three soldiers said. “I’m looking forward to hearing your explanation of what happened out there. You’re Treaty, that’s obvious enough from the outfit, the refusal to bow, and the prowess with a gun. But where were you going? And what were you so scared about your pretty friend telling us?”
“I want to see your commanding officer,” I said. My dry mouth made speaking difficult. I must have been unconscious for several hours.
“General Moreham is entertaining senior officials of the Regime tonight. He wouldn’t want to be pulled away from the dinner table to deal with the likes of you.”
Moreham. I’d worried that people had moved on, and the commander of this garrison would be unknown to me, but Moreham would recognise me anywhere. He might even show me some sympathy. The senior officials bit alarmed me more. Please don’t let his guest be Peter, or I’ll never make it back to London in one piece. I pushed the unwelcome thought aside.
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Call Richard, please.”
The soldier’s eyes widened at my use of his commanding officer’s first name, but he didn’t relent. “Then perhaps you should tell me.”
In reply, he picked up a metal bar, which I’d have struggled to lift, and smashed it into my bound right arm. I screamed, as much at the foreboding sound of cracking bone as at the sudden rush of pain.
“Don’t do this. If you hurt me, you’ll pay.”
The soldier laughed in my face. “You think the Treaty is going to burst in here and save you? You think Red David’s going to ride up on his white steed and whisk you away? We’re in the middle of a fortress, you stupid cow. Forget the Treaty. The First Lord’s Army are in control here.”
Slumped in my chair, I laughed. “I’ve already forgotten about the Treaty. I had business with them, but they mean nothing to me. It’s not the rebels who’ll make you pay. If you hurt me, Julien will destroy you, destroy your Regiment, destroy your home and your family.”
“Julien who?” the solder asked. He raised the bar, as if to hit me again, but this time, his voice carried a note of doubt.
“Oh for God’s sake. Which Julien do you think I mean?” I twisted my head and nodded lightly at the giant poster that dominated the left wall. He’d gelled his hair back for the picture, and he wore a rather fetching military outfit, but my pain and fear prevented the image having much of an effect on me.
With all of the “First Lord” and “Beloved Leader” crap they spouted, I wasn’t entirely sure they even knew Julien’s first name, but they seemed to get the point.
“Sir, I think we should get Moreham down here. If it’s all bullshit, and she really is just some worthless Treaty bit-player, he’ll be annoyed at having his dinner disturbed and might give us extra patrols and half rations for a week. If she’s a big name in the Treaty, or something else entirely, and we handle this wrong, we could be court-martialled.”
My interrogator scowled, as though the thought of taking advice from someone of an inferior rank physically pained him. “I don’t believe a word the little bitch is saying, but I suppose that makes sense. Go and get him, and on your head be it if he’s angry at being disturbed.”
“Who should I tell him we have down here?”
“Tell him it’s Marianne,” I called, before the head goon could give his suggestion. My real name reverberated strangely on my lips after so many years of being Melanie.
Again, I laughed. “He’ll know which Marianne you mean. Or at least, the suspicion will be enough to make him put down his port and visit the dungeons.
The soldier heaved open a heavy wooden door and slammed it behind him. I hoped that my faith in Moreham wasn’t misplaced. He’d always been a little too fond of wine and a little too reluctant to be proactive.
“So, Marianne. I don’t have any intention of looking stupid in front of the commander of the garrison. You travel with the Treaty, you shoot your companion dead, you expect “Richard” to know who you are, and you threaten to bring the wrath of “Julien” down on my head. Who the fuck are you, and what’s your game?”
I studied the floor and resolved to hold my silence until Moreham appeared.
“Answer me, Marianne.”
He mercifully dropped the rod, but then balled his right fist and smashed it into the side of my face. I cried out like I’d been stabbed. I’ve always been mentally strong, but I’m a coward in the face of physical pain. Still, it was far from the worst punch I’d ever taken.
“You said I might get in trouble for hurting you, but it seems like that ship’s already sailed. If you’re as precious as you claim, I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.”
He hit me again, on the other side this time. Despite my attempts to stay strong, I sobbed uncontrollably, which only made me choke on the blood that flooded my dry, aching mouth.
“Tell me the truth,” he screamed, glaring at my face as though the blood and the sound of my pain personally insulted him.
Was this what he’d signed up to the First Lord’s Army to do? Perhaps he still regarded me as a Treaty member, despite my claims to the contrary, and believed that made me fair game. After all, the army hadn’t started the bombing campaign.
“If I thought you’d believe me, I’d tell you,” I sobbed. “But you’d think I was lying or deluded. Please stop hitting me. Please wait for Moreham.”
“Tell me,” he screamed again, squeezing my broken arm until I screamed in turn.
“What the hell is going on down here? This had better be worth my dinner being disturbed. I have important guests here tonight. Extremely important guests.” Moreham’s pompous, well-educated voice cut through the dim room.
I’d never heard such a welcome sound in my life, though pain prevented me calling out in reply. I stared at him, resplendent in his ceremonial uniform.
“Jones, unhand the prisoner. We’re not barbarians, and whoever the girl is and whatever she’s done, she’s not much danger to you sitting tied to a chair, surrounded by men, in an army dungeon.”
Jones stepped away, and I took a ragged breath. “She claims to know you, sir,” he said, saluting. “I suspect it’s Treaty lies and if that’s the case, I’m sorry to have called you down here. But she insisted on speaking to you, and we decided not to risk denying her.”
“Who are you, girl? Ross here claimed you’re called Marianne, but the only Marianne I know is dead.”
“It’s me, Richard,” I said in a choked voice.
He crossed the room as if he were trudging through mud, as though he wasn’t ready for the moment when I’d confirm what he already knew.
Between the dirt and the blood, I’d struggle to recognise myself in a mirror, and Moreham hadn’t seen me in five years—five years in which I’d changed immeasurably. But he put one hand on my shoulder, used the other to gently tilt back my bruised head, and stared at my face and into my eyes.
He drew his ceremonial sword. I flinched, but he skilfully cut my bonds without touching my skin or ruining my khaki jacket. He took a sharp intake of breath. “It’s really you, isn’t it?”
“It’s really me.”
He leaned in and whispered so that only I could hear. “Part of me thinks I ought to run you through with this sword right now and save you, me, and my sworn lord an awful lot of trouble. God knows what you’ve been up to, but I doubt any of it was good.”
I tensed, but instead of doing as he’d threatened, he touched the sword to my forehead in a formal gesture.
“Even so, I know who I swore my oath to.” He straightened up and faced the crowd of bemused soldiers.
“Jones, Carter. I appreciate that you acted in a manner you thought appropriate at the time, but I need you to leave, now. I need you to head out of town immediately and get as far away from here as possible.”
They both saluted, and then stared at the far wall, perhaps wondering what their punishment would be and what rules they had actually broken. The army didn’t exactly have a zero tolerance approach to brutality against political prisoners.
Jones trembled. “But sir, that sounds like desertion, and everyone knows that’s punishable by death.”
“A deserter always has the chance he may evade his pursuers. Or if the worst comes to the worst, it’ll be a bullet to the back of the head.”
Carter knelt on the ground. “Sir, I don’t understand. I’m a loyal soldier of the First Lord. I want to fight to keep this country safe from the rebels and leave him free to carry out his great works. How can you ask me to turn my back on that?”
“Do you remember Olivia Livelton?” Moreham asked the two puzzled men.
Jones frowned. “She was a mistress of the First Lord. The daughter of some western army major.”
Moreham nodded. “Indeed. And do you remember what happened to the colonel who subsequently raped her?”
Every man in the room shivered. Some things didn’t need to be put in to words.
“There are worse ways to die than a deserter’s bullet, gentlemen,” Moreham said, softly.
I wondered what had happened to the colonel. The Treaty denounced the ingenious tortures of the Regime, but in my opinion, army rapists deserved whatever awful fates befell them.
Moreham turned his attention from Jones and Carter and barked out orders. “Smith, go to the infirmary and bring a doctor and a stretcher. Melville, go to the servant’s quarters, summon my wife’s lady’s maid, and have her find make-up that’s capable of hiding bruises. Chrisson, go to the state dining room, pour our most esteemed guest a large whisky, and ask him to retire to my study. Or if he won’t move, which is of course his prerogative, ask all the other guests to depart to the drawing room so that he has some privacy.”
None of them quite seemed to understand Moreham’s orders, but the Regime had trained them to obey, and they all headed towards the door. Before they or the fleeing Jones and Carter could reach it, it swung open and a figure walked into the room.
“I gave strict orders not to be disturbed,” Moreham snapped.
“Moreham, you’ve been hours. The champagne’s getting warm and the Lobster Thermidor is getting cold. If it’s nothing, then for goodness sake, come back to dinner and have the man who called you punished. But if something’s going on, I want to know about it.”
The speaker walked into the room, and Moreham’s complaint died on his lips as he fell to his knees. All around me, the soldiers did the same, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with awe. I shook. I was not ready for this. Perhaps I never would be, but certainly not here, broken and dirty and covered in blood. I’d wanted to meet him as an equal—or as close as anyone got nowadays—looking beautiful and elegant and staring confidently into his haunting face.
“Bow down, for goodness sake,” Moreham hissed.
I laughed through the pain. “I don’t have to bow, remember?”
I’d made my Treaty vow never to bow to the First Lord, like all the other rebels, but it hadn’t actually made any difference to my position. I’d meant what I’d told Carter in the forest. Alone of everyone in the country, I didn’t have to bow to Julien. We’d written it into the damn constitution. And yet, as I glimpsed his piercing green eyes and aristocratic face, the subconscious urge to prostrate myself before him almost overcame me. I leaned back in the chair and kept my aching head firmly raised, and as his gaze swept over me, I saw genuine shock on his face for the first time I could ever remember.
Everyone else continued to kneel as he walked towards me in a trance. A kiss or a bullet to the head. They seemed equally possible.
And then, he reached me, and his arms closed around me, drawing my head into his velvet-covered chest. I shook and cried in his embrace.
Julien utterly consumed most of my mind and my senses—the smell of the woody, lemony scent he’d always worn, the feel of his fine clothes, after years of mass-produced rubbish, the sight of his tall, lean figure and long, elegant hands and swept-back dark hair.
Part of me, though, still maintained enough composure to register the presence of the soldiers, and I smiled at my tormentors’ shock. There must be few experiences worse than suddenly finding yourself in the glorious presence of the man you’re sworn to serve—the man you revere and idolise almost as a living —only to see, in this moment you’ve dreamt of all your life, your liege lord passionately and hysterically embracing the woman you’ve spent the last hour torturing. Your liege lord, who may be glorious and all-powerful, but who isn’t particularly known for mercy. It almost made me sorry for Jones. Almost.
Julien tightened his grip. I flinched and cried out as he caught my broken arm. It was never a good idea to show weakness in front of him, but the pain overrode my caution.
Julien straightened and touched my arm probingly, while I whimpered.
“Who broke her arm?” His voice exploded like a gunshot in a darkened room.
With my good arm, I gestured towards Jones. “He did.” I could have been merciful, but what had they done to earn my forgiveness? Julien’s spirit always got into my blood and made me want vengeance and power.
I hadn’t thought Jones could physically press himself any deeper into the floor, but somehow he managed it. “My Lord, I’m sorry. I meant no harm. I just wanted answers from her. She was clearly with the Treaty, and she wouldn’t bow to your image.”
Julien laughed. “She isn’t required to bow to me.”
God, I’d almost forgotten that laugh. Sweet, ringing and full of joy, with the tiniest hint of madness to provide a touch of seasoning to the sounds. I curled my bruised lips into a smile, pleased he’d remembered our agreement, delighted he still believed it.
“Who do you swear your oath of loyalty to, soldier?”
Jones forced his body still further into the ground, but raised his head to speak. “I swear it to you, sir. I’m utterly loyal to you.” I suspected Jones might cry. The First Lord tended to have that effect on people.
“Very good. Your fealty is noted. And who else do you swear loyalty to?”
For a moment or two, Jones seemed unsure what Julien expected of him. Finally, he managed to whisper out an answer. “To the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”
Really? They still swore the oath after all this time? Oh Julien. You old sentimentalist.
“Indeed. And I’m afraid you’ve broken your vow. By rights, I really should have you tortured to death, but I’ve got better things to do today.”
He gave me a meaningful glance, and I still couldn’t decide whether the “better things to do” involved laying me down and kissing every inch of my body or hooking me up to electrodes and running an electric current through it. Julien could communicate a thousand implications with one glance, but he was not an easy man to read.
He pulled a solid gold gun out of the bejewelled holster at his hip. Instead of further attempts at conversation, he pointed the tacky weapon at Jones and shot a bullet straight into his bowed head, which exploded on impact. He’d always been an exemplary shot. Without pausing for breath, he fired another shot to execute Carter.
I pointed to one of the other soldiers. “That one tried to rape my friend.”
He didn’t even hesitate, just swung the gun away from the ruined bodies of Jones and Carter, and fired towards the solider who’d pinned Michaela to the tree.
“And who broke your nose?”
I shrugged. “That one’s an old wound.” I shuddered at the memory of that blow, but I’d die rather than see the man who’d inflicted it punished.
“Moreham, what sort of barracks are you running here? Breaking women’s arms? Attempted rape? You’re clearly not setting the sort of example I’ve come to expect.” Before I could beg him not to, he fired at the general’s chest, at the man who’d once been his superior and who’d helped him to deliver his coup. No one dared to scream.
“Now, as I came in, I heard orders around getting medical assistance and running baths and finding clothes, all of which sound like excellent ideas. Anyone who was supposed to be helping, for God’s sake, get on with it. Everyone else, if you head to the second floor, you’ll find a feast in progress. Help yourself to the food and drink. The burgundy is particularly good.”
Bowing and scraping, most of our companions rushed for the door, but some hesitated.
Careful of my broken arm, Julien leaned in and kissed me. “Go, all of you, before I lose my customary cool. I want a moment alone with my wife.”