I’m currently supposed to be doing an in-depth revise and resubmit on My Love is Vengeance. And on the whole, I’m working quite hard and staying focussed. But of course, I got distracted and wrote another Dictator’s Wife short story. You can find the other two here and here But where the earlier ones play around with secondary characters’ POV’s, this one is all about Julien – everyone’s favourite villain/love interest. I thought this would be the hardest perspective to write from, but it actually really flowed, to the extent that if I ever write a sequel, I’m tempted to make it dual point of view…
I stood on the rooftop terrace and looked out at my city. At the centre of my empire. Wordsworth had once claimed earth had nothing to show more fair than the view from Westminster Bridge, but I preferred the vista from Waterloo.
From Somerset House, perched at the far end of Waterloo Bridge and almost touching the water, you could see London’s ancient past in the Tower of London (older than many countries), and its future in the equally impressive towers of Canary Wharf (built a thousand years later).
To some degree or another, all of it belonged to me.
The concept was hard to truly absorb, even after a few years to acclimatise. The financial transactions happening on the fiftieth floor of that skyscraper happened at my pleasure. The people on the bridge, walking hand in hand, kept their freedom only at my say so.
It would have disconcerted a lesser man. It thrilled me. Truly it did. But I still struggled to really believe it, to accept that my dreams – such grandiose, unachievable dreams – had honestly come true.
London was mine. England was mine. And they were better places for it.
Usually, self-assurance came easily, but tonight, I needed to remind myself it was all worthwhile. Convince myself that I’d made the right choice.
To bomb or not to bomb? The eternal question of every leader. God knows I wasn’t weak or over-burdened by moral scruples. If I’d thought it would grant us peace or increase our power, I’d have already mobilised the airforce.
I’d made the right call. I absolutely had. But disagreeing with Marianne discomfited me. Our propaganda exaggerated the extent to which we were always in accord, but we’d based the fantasy on fact. We had healthy disagreements on details and theories, but we usually agreed on the basics. Yet she’d been so adamant that we needed to crush the rebels and damn the repercussions. And she was so right about so many things.
I tried to lose myself in the view again, but my mind whirred. I glanced behind me. The terrace was empty, barring two heavily armed and aggressively trained guards. It was as alone as I got nowadays. They lurked unobtrusively in the background, clearly understanding my mindset.
I turned as the door to the terrace opened. It was well-crafted and oiled – a less observant person might not have noticed the sound at all. But people forget about my military training. I’m not some ancient, clueless despot, whatever the terrorists and insurgents might like to think.
A lesser man might have screamed that they’d given orders not to be disturbed. I merely raised an eyebrow at the high-ranking member of the counter-insurgency team who stood there bowing, while visibly trying – and failing – not to tremble.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, my Lord,” he murmured.
“Not to worry, Jack,” I replied with a smile, dredging my memory to locate the man’s name. “I’m sure you wouldn’t have invaded my privacy without good reason. You look like you have something to tell me.”
He pressed himself lower into the floor. “My Lord. I need you to come with me. Come to the dungeons. We have a new prisoner. You need to hear what he has to say.”
“Get up, Jack,” I said, gesturing for him to rise. Despite his deep bows, his words were unusually abrupt and demanding. Fear, urgency, or something more sinister? Either way, it didn’t look good.
I glanced at the two guards, still standing to attention, still silent. Acting like they saw and heard nothing when they actually absorbed everything. Surely they were loyal. Surely all of the army, all of the staff were. But somehow, I didn’t want to go down to that dungeon, either alone or accompanied by anyone I didn’t trust 100%.
“Get me Tyrone,” I demanded. “He’ll accompany me to the interrogation chambers. And in the meantime, perhaps you could deign to give me a summary of this prisoner’s revelations.”
Jack climbed unsteadily to his feet. “Major Jackson is indisposed, my Lord. A broken leg, or so I hear. And I don’t know precisely who the prisoner is or what he wants to tell your lordship. My superiors sent me to find you. There’s only so much he would tell them without you present.”
If I didn’t have my body under such perfect control, I’d have shuddered. Tyrone didn’t get injured. And my interrogation experts got answers. None of this felt right. But I’d be dammed if I’d allow myself to feel fear in my own palace.
“All three of you stay where you are,” I ordered. “I’ll go to the dungeons alone.” I stormed inside before they could protest.
I made a detour via one of my dressing rooms. Changing out of my relatively casual clothes into body armour below and the full Victorian Field Marshall uniform above. If someone wanted a scene, they were going to get a scene.
Once entering the dungeons, my heartrate normalised. The Head of Security himself stood guard outside the deepest cell. I didn’t fully trust him, simply because fully trusting anyone was a fool’s game, but if he’d turned against me, everything was truly lost. Surely that wasn’t where we stood.
More reassuring yet, Peter stood by his side. I made an exception to my rules on trust where my oldest friend was concerned.
They both bowed, but Peter remained uncharacteristically silent. He left the talking to Alex, the Security Chief.
The Chief rose out of his bow and saluted. “We have the Treaty’s Second-in-Command in there. He came to us voluntarily.”
I frowned. “A turncoat?”
“No. Seemingly still loyal to the insurgents. He wanted to give you a message.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Frankly I’m a little bemused that you’re allowing this traitor his moment in the spotlight. But I’ll assume you’ve got the perimeter under surveillance in case this is a distraction and this room heavily secured in case it’s a trap. And on that basis, I’ll hear what he has to say.”
I pushed past him and flung open the door.
I recognised the man secured to the interrogation chair from Treaty broadcasts and from my men’s surveillance.
I despised him on principle, of course, as I did all rebels and disloyalists. He’d probably die a horrible death before the night was out, and I’d be glad. But on an objective level, he looked decent and friendly enough. Just a man on the wrong side of history. It was something of a token hatred. Nothing like the all-consuming fury that consumed me whenever I had to look into the overly chiselled face of that smug, sanctimonious cunt who ran his pitiful organisation.
“Well, you’ve got what you wanted. I’m here, and I’m listening. What is it you’ve risked everything to tell me?”
I sensed Peter and Alex behind me and saw other guards in the gloomy corners of the room. I stared at the prisoner, expecting either the sneering refusal to speak or the melodramatic, self-aggrandising speeches these people seem to delight in.
Instead, he took a deep breath, stared into my eyes, and spoke a simple, devastating sentence in his thick northern brogue. “We killed and captured your wife. I have her rings to prove it.”
His voice seemed to come from a million miles away. I could hear and comprehend individual words, but they made no sense as a sentence. The room blurred around the edges. This couldn’t be happening.
Perhaps I was supposed to challenge his assertions, demand further proof. But I saw the distinctive rings sparkling on a side table, and I heard the ring of truth in his voice.
“We’ve already given him the truth serum,” the Head of Security said. He was the hardest man I knew. He sounded like he was about to cry. Whether for himself, myself or Marianne, I wasn’t quite sure.
“Everyone please excuse me for ten minutes,” I said, in my calmest, most commanding tone. “Everyone stay here. Do and say nothing until I return.”
I bit my lip, clenched my fists and strode out of the room with surprising poise. I kept walking, ignoring the stares and bows of the guards and courtiers. I kept my head held high and my face studiously neutral, and then I flung myself inside my official drawing room, barging past the guard outside.
“Out,” I snapped at the guard inside.
He fired off the sharpest of salutes then marched outside.
“Keep your distance. And let no one inside,” I ordered, slamming the door and drawing the curtains.
I stepped to the dresser at the far side of the room and poured half a bottle of Laphroaig into a pint glass. I closed my eyes and drank it down in as close to one as I could manage, pausing merely to catch my breath between choked gulps.
The whisky blurred the edges, made the Treaty prisoner’s words feel like a hideous dream. I pulled out my pocket watch – antique casing refined with modern technology – and set an alarm for ten minutes time.
Ten minutes. I’d allow myself ten minutes of weakness, of sorrow, mourning, hysteria. And then I’d be strong again, and I’d make them all pay.
The tears began to pour before I was ready for them. I sobbed in a way I’d never allowed myself to before, in a way I’d never allow either my worst enemies or my closest allies to see. I didn’t think of the consequences and repercussions, of the steps I’d have to take to right this wrong. I thought of her scent, the touch of her hand on my arm, the way she could say something amusing and jolt me out of the worst of moods, or say something serious and convince me to change my path.
Flashes of memory assaulted me as I dug my nails into the palms of my hand. I raised my fist and drove my right hand through the window, relishing the pain and disregarding the blood and the shards.
It had all been too perfect for too long. I’d taken the sort of power no man could hope to hold, and I’d known I’d have to face the consequences at some point. But this. Of all the punishments I’d dreamt could be inflicted on me, the fates had found the worst of all possible worlds.
I gasped in air, my cries wracking my body.
The door swung open and Peter strode inside, wide-eyed and tense. I closed my eyes, making no attempt to disguise my sobs, but trying to pretend he wasn’t there. I gave orders not to be disturbed, I wanted to say, but my trembling lips couldn’t form the words. Besides, I knew that Peter would never take no for an answer and few guards would dare to resist him.
His fingers dug into my arm. “Julien, are you alright? Julien, listen to me.”
I forced breath into my constricted lungs. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard him use my full first name or show so much unrestrained emotion.
“Julien, seriously. Open your eyes. Look at me. Breathe.”
Any minute now, he was going to say something unutterably practical. He was going to insist on a press conference or an interrogation, and I was going to punch him.
“Go back to the prisoner, Peter,” I choked out. “I don’t trust anyone else with him, and I need to be alone for now. Really alone.”
I made no attempt to disguise my tears, my utter devastation. I’d hide them later, and I’d surely manage to be convincing. But for now, it was all too raw. Besides, there was no point trying to hide my feelings from my oldest friend.
Peter released his grip on my arm. “I’m going back to the cells. If you want to be alone, I’ll respect that. But when you’re ready, we’ll mourn. And when you’re even readier, we’ll attack.”
I opened my eyes long enough to see him walk out and gently close the door, then I collapsed in on myself, sobbing, shaking and embracing the devastation.
Long before I was ready to be calm, the alarm rang, marking the end of the period of hysteria I’d permitted myself. I counted down from ten in my head. I breathed in for a count of four. Held for four. Out for four. Held. In for four. Repeat and repeat and repeat. It was a trick they’d taught me in the army. A way of maintaining calm under the worst of provocation. I’d used it in war, and I’d used it in our coup.
Two minutes of that, another swig of the whisky, then I stepped into the adjacent bathroom, washed out my mouth, splashed my face and smoothed back my hair.
I studied my reflection in the mirror and thought of anything but Marianne. I could do this. I could go back there and confront the prisoner. Then I could tell the world what had happened. I longed to grant myself a day or two to shake and rage and mourn, but that way danger lay. Two days was enough for my enemies to gain momentum, for my rivals to manipulate my weakness. That wasn’t what Marianne would have wanted.
I was an ocean of horror and sadness. But above all that was a thin, icy crust of composure. I’d give it all up to hold my wife against me one more time. But that wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t lose both her and the Regime.
One more glance in the mirror satisfied me that I looked in control of my emotions, and one more deep breath satisfied me that I could speak without breaking down. I’d waited long enough.
I left the room. The guard’s bow held a distinct hint of nervousness. How much had he heard and how much more did he suspect? But that wasn’t my concern.
I made it back to the dungeons without the slightest hint of a tremor wracking my body or a sob escaping my lips. Guards bowed fervently. I usually bestowed a nod of acknowledgement, but today, I ignored them.
The security chief was back at his post outside the door. “My Lord,” he whispered, bowing exceptionally low.
“Let me past,” I demanded.
“Of course, my Lord. If that’s what you wish. But I assure you we can deal with this traitor ourselves. Mine him for information and make him pay. You don’t have to worry yourself.”
I frowned, a subtle hint of the raging emotions below the surface. “I want to worry myself.”
I pushed past him without another word and he threw himself out of the way like my touch was poison.
The scene in the dungeon was much the same as it had been before I left. The Treaty’s man strapped to the chair. Guards surrounding him, tense and watchful. Peter at the back of the room, trying to look as laconic as usual and doing a spectacularly bad job of it.
I ignored the rest of the room, despite Peter’s frantic attempts to force eye-contact, and stared at the prisoner.
“Has anyone hurt you?” I asked, in an almost supernaturally calm tone of voice.
“My Lord, you gave strict instructions, and we obeyed,” one of the guards simpered.
“I’m asking him,” I replied levelly.
“No one’s touched me,” the prisoner replied. “I’m actually rather impressed by the discipline of your guards and the control you have over them. It’s rather different from the behaviour of the FLA in the provinces.”
When I looked at him, I saw Marianne lying dead on the ground. How had they killed her? Had it taken long? Had she suffered? I longed to ask him for every last detail and use each little fact as another stick with which to beat myself for ever more. But I couldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“Why did the leader of your godforsaken organisation choose you to send this message?” I asked instead. “Why his second-in-command? Why not some wide-eyed new recruit? It’s a task that combines the utmost simplicity with no chance of a successful outcome. An idiot-proof suicide mission.”
He stared me down. “I couldn’t say.”
One of the guards cleared his throat and spoke up. “My Lord, should I bring one of the special serums? Or perhaps a set of scalpels? Electrodes?”
Memories of the things we’d done to those who’d committed crimes a fraction as horrifying as this echoed in my mind. No doubt my interrogators would give it their best shot, but there was surely no way to give this the escalation it required.
“Did you kill her personally?” I asked, sounding for all the world like I was making smalltalk at a party.
He shook his head as much as he could within his restraints. “No. David did it. Our leader took care of this job personally.”
“Were you present? Were you involved?”
“In this instance, I’m just the messenger.”
There were some men who’d say anything to save their skin. But my experience of the Treaty was quite different. They bragged. They insulted us in the hope of dying as a martyr. Far from claiming innocence, they laid claim to impossible crimes. If this man claimed not to be involved, I believed him. And believed him to be different.
“What’s your name?”
“And how is your relationship with this David?”
“We share the same broad aims.”
“My overthrow? The destruction of everything my wife and I have worked for?”
He gave a half smile. “Something like that.
Again, the difference was clear. Normally, Treaty prisoners couldn’t wait to say their piece, to lay my supposed crimes at my feet.
The shell of my composure trembled. I’d achieved my basic aim. Everyone in the room – allies and enemies alike – had seen my emotional strength, my lack of emotion. If the loss of my wife couldn’t faze me, surely that meant I was untouchable. I needed to keep up the act for a little while longer, then I needed to collapse.
“Let’s face it. David sent you for one reason, and one reason only. If I’m truly the monster he believes me to be, whoever told me such terrible, soul-destroying news would inevitably die a horrible death. He could have sent someone disposable. Instead, he gave the suicide mission to his supposed lieutenant. It’s clear that he fears you. He wanted me to kill you so he didn’t have to. And I won’t give him the satisfaction.”
I turned to go.
“My Lord, what do you want us to do?” one of the guards spluttered.
“Escort Michael to one of the guest rooms. Keep him under armed guard, but otherwise grant him every courtesy and luxury. In time, I’m confident he’ll chose us over a supposed ally who’d sacrifice him out of petty jealousy.”
I paced towards the door before either Michael or the guards could respond. I trusted the latter to obey my orders, and the former to obey my faith in human nature.
“Peter, summon the Council for an hour’s time, and arrange a press conference for an hour after that. I’ll inform my generals and ministers. I’ll tell the public and declare a period of mourning. Then I’ll bomb the rebels’ stronghold out of existence.”
I left the room and closed the door behind me. I’d done my duty. I’d shown my strength. And I’d do it again for the benefit of my council and all my loyal citizens. But the adrenaline was already fading away. A chill settled over my heart.
Marianne was dead.
I could put a good spin on it. I could make the perpetrators wish they’d never been born. I could show everyone I wasn’t fazed or weakened, and perhaps even use the moment to consolidate my power. The cold, calculating part of my brain could see it already – we’d have posters mourning the Eternal Blessed First Lady. We’d crush the Treaty and a mourning populace would cheer. But none of it would change the fact that forever more, I’d be alone. The Dictator’s Wife was dead.