I mentioned in a post a few days ago that my YA fantasy novel, My Love is Vengeance, is currently up for nomination on Kindle Scout. Page views and nominations very much appreciated: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2EIVFGDYBQ4EU
Today I thought it would be fun to share one of my favourite scenes. This takes place about a third of the way into the book, so there’s a lot of backstory, but it also works quite well as a standalone read, and anything you might really need to know can be found here. Enjoy!
On Midsummer’s Eve, the sound of the band drifted up through the window. I hated the way the Annual Sacrifice had become such a festive occasion. Bonfires burned across the country in imitation of the great pyre on Thorney Island. Reminded they were not as powerless as their rulers often made them feel, commoners drank and danced the night away. And Peers celebrated the fact they’d been spared with lavish entertainments, then mourned their lost compatriot in a quieter fashion over the next days and weeks.
Despite my lack of sympathy for any of the Peers selected for the fire, there should surely be some solemnity about it all. A reverence for the democratic process. An understanding that a man, however weak or cruel, was to die. If nothing else, some respect for the memory of those who’d met their end at the chosen Peer’s hands.
Even so, I longed to be out there, eating ice cream, knocking back rum punch and revelling in the energy of the crowd. I put down the eighty-third letter I’d stamped with the Longville crest that day. I could hardly concentrate through all the noise.
The size of Longville’s office was ridiculous. It was about a third of the size of the Second Order Hall where I’d previously worked, and that seated eighty, rather than just the two of us. Today though, the privacy and the isolation were perfect for my needs. I slipped off my heavy robe and clunky shoes to leave myself dressed in my regulation tight-fitting grey one-piece. I’d have preferred a swirling dress like the ones I used to wear, but at least the pared-back outfit gave me some freedom of movement. The sound of the band seeped into my blood.
I stepped self-consciously into the centre of the room, stood frozen for a moment, then closed my eyes and danced. It had been months since I’d allowed myself such a simple pleasure. For the first song, my movements were hesitant and jerky, but as the band struck up a second melody, my muscles remembered what they’d been missing. I twirled lightly around the room, left foot, right foot, leaping into the air, balancing on pointed toe, kicking my legs up, first forward then backwards, spinning faster and faster.
The darkest part of my mind whispered that I ought to feel guilt of some kind. Perhaps for neglecting my work. Perhaps for dancing to the music that heralded a man’s fiery death, or perhaps simply for enjoying something frivolous while my brother lay dead. But any bad thoughts spun away into the air.
After the second dance, my breath came fast and the neglected muscles in my legs ached, but I didn’t stop and rest. It had been a long time since such pure joy had suffused me, and I refused to let the feeling get away from me that easily.
“I’ve always said you dance well for an Advisor.”
I gasped, opened my eyes and almost careened into Longville. Somehow, I found the composure to finish my spin and drop down into the curtsey with which my mother had always taught me to end formal dances.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace,” I said, looking up at him from the depths of the curtsey. My breath came thick and fast, half from the unaccustomed exertion, half from the shock.
He extended an arm to help me to my feet. “You don’t need to apologise. I keep saying you work too hard and should have some fun. I’m glad you’ve taken the message to heart.”
I blushed, despite my best efforts not to. He kept my hand firmly grasped. His fingers had the softness that the commoners derided Peers for, apart from a ridge of calluses where his sword would sit.
Outside, another song reached its crescendo and then the music died away. The time of the Sacrifice must be drawing closer.
“What’s your favourite song?” Longville asked.
“Your Grace, there are hundreds of speeches I need to draft and plans I need to approve. I’m sorry I started this silliness, but it’s your duty to put a stop to it, not take it further.”
He stoked the palm of my hand, thoughtfully. “Your favourite song, Tara.”
“The Ballad of Eleanor and Sam,” I said.
In my slight dizziness and serious surprise, I’d told the truth for once, rather than giving a carefully considered answer. I cursed myself. A song about the forbidden love between a Peer and an Advisor. It couldn’t have sounded more like an attempt at seduction if I’d spent hours thinking it up.
Longville tightened his grip on my hand, and reached out to the service bell. “Excellent choice, even if I always felt a little sorry for the poor, charming Peer that Lady Eleanor refused to marry. It makes for a delightfully slow dance, too.”
I almost made some pointed remark about the other Lady Eleanor—the one he was engaged to—but he’d think I was obsessed with her.
A servant came running, summoned by the sound of the bell. I hoped his appearance would cause Longville to drop my hand, but Peers could consider themselves utterly alone in rooms that consisted of them and a hundred commoners.
“Call down to the musicians’ quarters. Get me a minstrel and a string quartet.” Longville’s voice had a ring of command.
The servant had the pained expression of someone all too familiar with people shooting the messenger.
“Your Grace, most musicians in the city are likely to have either been granted a rest day in honour of the Sacrifice or commissioned to play at one of the events. Perhaps you could delay your entertainment until tomorrow.”
Annoyance made Longville let go of my hand, and I took a grateful step back.
“But I want to dance with my vizier right now. Check the practice room. If there’s really no one there, take my ring to Horne House and demand that Julius sends the musicians he’s ordered for tonight’s ball over to my office.”
The servant’s face paled still further. “Your Grace, Julius Horne is an Earl, one of the most powerful Peers in the Kingdom. I can’t demand he gives up his musicians.”
“And I am a Duke, and every scrap of land that Horne owns he owns at my pleasure. He’s mine to command as much as any servant, and I WANT HIS MUSICIANS HERE THIS INSTANT.”
My breath caught in my throat. I’d never known Longville speak like that before, but it was exactly the sort of behaviour of which Advisors often accused Peers. In our most stereotypical portrayals, they always put their own petty whims over every other consideration.
The servant scampered away. I didn’t know much about Horne apart from that Lis-Cerruyt, one of the rebel villages, sat in his county. Hopefully, he wasn’t a vengeful man.
“A drink while we want for him to return with the musicians?” Longville’s voice was courtly, with no hint of the way he’d just given the servant a near-impossible demand.
I ought to have been appalled at Longville’s abuse of position and power. To my shame, a little thrill assailed me instead.
Dancing to music drifting in from the street had been fun. Dancing to my favourite song, played by musicians stolen away from a powerful lord by the one person in the world he had to obey—that would be a thousand times better.
“A drink would be delightful,” I replied. “I can’t wait to dance.”
Sometimes, it was a shame I was going to have to kill him.
I took the glass of deep red wine, grateful to have something to occupy my shaking hands and calm my nerves. Longville led me out onto the balcony. I should never have given in to the urge to dance, but the sense that anything could happen wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
I stood and stared out over the city. Bonfires dominated the landscape, but they were all dwarfed by the one on Thorney Island where Lord Bonvale would imminently meet his fate.
“Sacrifice Night is an evening when the usual order of things is turned upside down,” Longville whispered beside me. “For one night only, the Peers are in thrall to the commoners. On any other night, Lord Bonvale would summon his guards and have the crowds that surround him torn to pieces. But tonight, no one would answer his call.”
“The Sacrifice seems to play on your mind,” I replied. “Has someone close to you ever been chosen?”
He actually shivered. “No one close, no. My family have always been far too virtuous to incur the commoners’ wrath, and we’ve tended to curb the worst excesses of the other Peers in Dumnonia, by force if necessary.”
He looked behind him, staring at the portrait of his father. I followed his gaze.
“But plenty of acquaintances. Vague friends of my father, men who’ve offered me advice. There’ll be grand parties for the rest of the Peers tonight while Lord Bonvale’s family weep alone. We dance in the face of death and celebrate the fact that we’ve all been spared for another year. I don’t know why it plays on my mind more than on others’, but you’re right, it does. I need to win the Contest next time around and put myself out of harm’s way. That or make myself Bretwalda.”
I hated him sharing his thoughts and his past with me. Every memory of his father, every hope and fear made him harder to despise. And I couldn’t, wouldn’t, let myself be weakened.
“Like I say, it’s a night when the usual order of things is turned upside down. And so tonight, I can ask you the question that’s tormented me for weeks. Why did you kiss me last month? And why have you never mentioned it since?”
Damn Marissa. I had reasoned he had so many women that one kiss would barely be worthy of note, but of course he hadn’t forgotten.
A sharp rap at the door saved me from having to answer immediately.
“Your Grace, I bring you the musicians you requested.”
The servant’s whole body tensed, though the four young musicians grinned in excitement.
Longville shook his hand, took back his ring and passed him a gold coin. “Good work. Enjoy the rest of your Sacrifice Night.”
A hurried bow, a mumbled “thank you, Your Grace,” and the man sped out of the room. Earl Horne would have had little choice but to obey his master, but he wouldn’t have given the messenger an easy time of it.
“Thank you for coming, boys. I’ll have you back at your Lord’s house in no time. Now, I assume you know Eleanor and Sam?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” the singer said, with a much more elaborate bow than the servant had managed.
They took a moment or two to tune up, and then the familiar tune flowed out, reminding me of a thousand dances in happier times.
“Thank you,” I said, then closed my eyes and let myself gently spin.
Longville caught hold of each of my hands in his, bringing me to a shuddering halt. “Tara, really. You don’t think I mortally offended Julius without intending to join in the fun myself, do you?”
“I can’t dance with you,” I replied, my whole body stiffening.
“Of course you can. I’m an excellent dancer, and so are you. I know far too few people who can dance as well as I’d like, and I’m sure you feel the same.”
“I knew only one person who could dance with me as well as I’d like, and he’s dead,” I snapped.
For a split second, Longville closed his eyes and pressed his lips together, as though my uncharacteristic willingness to mention Gene had broken through his shell, as though my simple words had devastated him. But then he tightened his grip on one of my hands, positioned the other on his shoulder and took a hold of my waist. I wished my robe still swamped me. The bodysuit left little to the imagination.
“Well, now you’ve met another one,” he said to me, in his most matter-of-fact voice, as though I’d imagined his discomfiture. “Musicians, start again.”
I closed my eyes to lose myself in the music and avoid the damned Peer’s gaze. I tried to ignore his presence and concentrate on the steps, but my body remembered them far too well. I usually resented being led. I hated the clumsy way in which people who couldn’t quite anticipate the split-second subtleties of my moves would drag me around the room. I despised the ones who wouldn’t even try.
Longville held my waist like an iron corset. He moved with a certainty that swept me along with it. Our bodies were in perfect sync. One step forward. One to the right. One back. One to the left. Traversing the room. Moving in a smooth circle.
Even with my eyes firmly closed, I sensed him lift the hand that held mine high in the air to make a gate, which I spun through delicately. On the third twist, my eyes fluttered open. He smiled as though challenging me to demand an end to it. I took my arm from his shoulder and his fell away from my waist at that precise moment. I swirled out until we stood together in a straight line, and then drifted back to him, placing my hand where it had been before.
I glanced at the musicians. They were watching us with the sort of awe I remembered from performing with Gene, and with good reason. Longville hadn’t merely been arrogant when he’d praised his own skills, and he hadn’t merely aimed to flatter when he’d praised mine. But what alarmed and delighted me was the way we moved like two halves of one body. With Gene, it had made sense—on some level, that was genuinely what we were—but here, I couldn’t understand it.
I hadn’t felt such happiness in months. Once, I’d practiced dancing every day and loved every minute of it. Longville was right about one thing at least; I’d been refusing to allow myself any fun, any little pleasures. That had to change.
The chorus started up again, and I sang along under my breath.
“And their minds were as one. She understood all his fears. She was him, he was her. Two bodies, one soul. Their love was fate. Few minds can be merged, few people are as one. Just twins and soulmates. Twins and soulmates.”
I came in for a low dip and stopped singing. My voice was nowhere near as good as my dancing, and those lyrics trod dangerous ground. Longville swung me out for one, final dramatic pirouette, then pulled me back towards him. This time, he held me so that our bodies were touching. The iron grip on my waist softened to something more akin to an embrace as the song reached its tragic climax: being soulmates with a magical connection doesn’t cut much ice with angry fathers.
I was willing to bet no one had ever danced in such a technically perfect way with him ever before. But how many women had he held close and swayed in his arms? Some of them had probably been fellow Advisors. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that one of them had been Alanna. The mysterious Eleanor had presumably been subject to this treatment, political match or not. And it was all too easy to guess what happened next.
Just twins and soulmates. And those joined in death.
As the music stopped, Longville dropped my hand and pulled me even closer. If his touch had repulsed me, I could have borne it. His lack of respect for my position would just have provided more fuel for the fire of hate I needed to stoke if I would ever get revenge. But the dancing had awoken something in me. Pressed against his hard body, perhaps it was inevitable that my animal senses would respond. But it was more than just the traitorous tingling. With the memory of the dance and that easy connection fresh in my head, along with a sense of gratitude at his determination to help me relax and have fun, my mind wanted him too.
“You’re dismissed,” Longville called over his shoulder to the musicians. “Return to Horne House and offer his lordship my apologies. I’ll send him a cask of a wonderful new wine I’ve found. I’ll forward payment for your performance too.”
They left, wide-eyed.
“Now will you tell me?” Longville whispered, his mouth inches from mine.
“Tell you what?” I asked, playing for time though I knew the question all too well.
“Why you kissed me three weeks ago. Why you’ve been your usual closed-off self ever since.”
“I wanted to see whether it’s true what they say. That Peers’ kisses taste of spice and raspberries and magic.”
“I should call the musicians back and have them play that old song about that,” he mused. “So did it?”
I remembered Marissa’s fervent agreement with the old legend, and I regretted I would never experience the sensation for myself. “It did. But I merely wanted to satisfy my curiosity, and now that I have, it’s not an experience I’m planning to repeat.”
His easy smile faded at that.
He stroked the soft sheen of my rapidly regrowing hair, and I shivered. I told myself it was with disgust. “Are you sure you don’t want to try it once more?”
“My mind is made up. I enjoyed that dance, and I enjoyed that kiss, but I’m no collaborator.”
I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to rejection, but to my relief, he dropped his hands and left me standing alone, the wonderful connection broken.
“Go. It’s Sacrifice Night. You shouldn’t be spending it working, and you certainly shouldn’t be spending it dancing with someone you dislike. I’ll meet you tomorrow for the trip to Hallith.” He strode to the dragon table and stared down at the map, running his fingers over it as though it held all the secrets of the world.
“I don’t dislike you, Your Grace,” I said, as I walked to the door.
It was true. I genuinely didn’t dislike him. I enjoyed his company and his easy charm. I merely hated him, and that’s a completely different emotion.