My Love is Vengeance published

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Just a very quick post to say that My Love is Vengeance is now available on Amazon, and for the moment, is just £0.99/$0.99. Do take a look and if you read it, I’d love a review.

This special link will take you straight to the right Amazon store for your country: http://geni.us/mylove

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TORN BETWEEN FORBIDDEN LOVE AND BRUTAL REVENGE…

Tara plots revenge on the duke who killed her twin while trying not to fall for his charms or give in to her dark side.

Tara Moran’s psychic bond with her twin, Gene, allows them to combine his strength with her intelligence so they can both wield power. Until Gene dies in a duel with the arrogant young Duke Longville.

Vowing revenge, Tara becomes Duke Longville’s personal advisor to manipulate him and provoke an uprising that will lead to his death. Destroying the Duke she’s sworn to serve could result in her execution, but to avenge her brother, she’s willing to take any risk. Tara expects to despise working with Gene’s killer. Instead, she feels a traitorous attraction towards Longville and discovers they share the same telepathic connection she once shared with her brother—a connection that only twins and soulmates possess.

Tara’s sense of right and wrong blurs as her love for Longville increases and her schemes against him escalate. Tara must decide which is more important: the bond she once had with her brother or the one with the man responsible for his death, before she becomes a villain neither of them would want to know.

MY LOVE IS VENGEANCE is a dark romantic fantasy, aimed at adult readers who love YA fantasy novels. It combines the political scheming of RED QUEEN with the deadly romance of THE GRISHA and the dark, anti-heroine protagonist of THE YOUNG ELITES.

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Sacrifice Night – An Extract from My Love is Vengeance

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!

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Sacrifice Night 

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.

My Love is Vengeance – Kindle Scout

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I’m hoping to get back into blogging a little more regularly this year, but just a quick one for now.

I’ve entered my as yet unpublished YA Fantasy novel, My Love is Vengeance, into Kindle Scout, in an attempt to gain a publishing contract with Amazon. Nominations are open for thirty days. I’d be so grateful if you could take a moment or two to check out my campaign page and give me a nomination. All you need is an Amazon account. If it’s selected and published, you’d then get the e-book for free.
https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2EIVFGDYBQ4EU


Torn between forbidden love or brutal revenge

Once, Tara dreamed of being the power behind the throne. Now, she plots revenge on the charismatic young duke who killed her twin brother, while trying not to fall for his charms or give in to her dark side by destroying his innocent family. MY LOVE IS VENGEANCE combines the political scheming of RED QUEEN with the deadly romance of THE GRISHA and the dark, anti-heroine protagonist of THE YOUNG ELITES.

More info on My Love is Vengeance here.

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Dictator’s Wife Spinoff Story 3 – Julien

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?”

“Michael.”

“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.

 

 

Dictator’s Wife Spin-off story Number Two: The Two Facts Everyone Knows About Me

She turned away from the blue tiles and bronze taps of the bath, and laughed again. “Which of the two facts about me is your favourite? That I served as the First Lord’s leading mistress or that I was indirectly responsible for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s death by the removal of genitals?”

That roughly summarised the only two pieces of information I knew about Olivia, but hearing them from her own lips made me shudder in a way that neither David’s talk of mistresses nor Moreham’s warnings of what had happened to the man who’d attacked one of them had managed.

A few months ago, I posted Right-hand Man, a short story I’d written about Peter Delamare, one of the characters in  The Dictator’s Wife, which took place in the five years dividing the two halves of the novel.

Quick summary of TDW for those who don’t know: The British Government has been overthrown by a military coup, led by Julien St John Helmsley. Julien runs the country as an autocratic dictator, revered by some and despised by others. The Dictator’s Wife is told from the point of view of Marianne Helmsley, Julien’s beloved wife. Half the chapters focus on how they met and their rise to power, culminating in Marianne seemingly faking her own death and fleeing to join the resistance. The other, alternating chapters focus on her return five years later, when she is torn between assassinating her husband and resuming her position of absolute power at his side.

Like Right-Hand Man, this short story takes place in the missing five years, in this case, immediately after Peter’s story ends. This time around, it’s from the POV of Olivia Livelton. In the “present day” sections of the novel, she’s a hyper-confident, scheming twenty-something, who, despite being a former mistress of the First Lord, manages to become his wife’s best friend and confidant on her return. But this story is set before all that, back when Olivia was a naive seventeen-year-old. And if Right-hand Man took you inside Peter’s head to suggest he wasn’t as bad as Marianne always seems to think, this one reverts to showing him at his manipulative worst.

As the title implies, I was hoping to cover both halves of Olivia’s story. In the end, I  didn’t actually get as far as her first meeting with Julien. It’s fair to say I ship Julien and Marianne pretty hard as the perfect example of what TV Tropes calls “Unholy Matrimony“. As a result, I think my sub-conscious balked at writing any romantic or sexual Olivia/Julien scenes – but I’ll try my best to get part 2 done at some point. I’ve also got a third short story in the works,  directly focussed on Julien, but it’s very weird to write from his POV, so I’ll see how that one goes…

THE TWO FACTS EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT ME – PART ONE

“Olivia, my darling. Could you come into my office for a moment?”

I uncoiled my legs and roused myself from the depths of the sofa. I’d been alternating between reading the most salacious novel I could get my hands on and staring out of the window at the sparkling sea. It was warm for March. Perhaps later I’d brave a dip.

“Coming, Daddy.”

I smiled at the thought of him permitting me into the inner sanctum. It’d been weeks. My father’s role of suppressing any hints of rebellion in the south-west kept him busy, and though we’d always been close, we spent less and less time together. When we did talk, he kept his innermost thoughts to himself in a way he never had before. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect me. Perhaps a growing lack of trust. After all, I was a citizen of the Regime as well as a daughter of the Livelton clan.

“Close the door behind you,” my father snapped, as soon as I entered the airy attic room that served as his centre of operations.

He stood behind his desk, pacing to and fro. He’d torn several documents into tiny strips – a nervous habit rather than a security precaution. He wouldn’t catch my eye.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Sit down.” He pointed to the battered old sofa in the far corner.

I did as he’d asked. Instead of joining me, he intensified his pacing.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re to be sent to Somerset House.”

My hand flew to my mouth, disguising both my shock and my smile. I paused before answering. It wouldn’t do to sound too keen.

“Why? Why now? I’ve begged for years to be allowed to join the court. You’ve told me time and time again that it’s a den of danger and debauchery. That my place is here in the south west.” That I should marry someone suitable and consolidate the family’s power base.

My sister was eight years older than me. She’d gone off to university, taken a job as a management consultant, and married a fellow professional, all before the revolution. She made jokes about the Tudors, teased me about my expected dynastic marriage and my longing to be a lady-in-waiting. Things have changed, she’d say. Sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a haunted look in her eyes.

My father glanced around as though Regime spies were hiding behind the wallpaper. He’d said those things and more, a hundred and one times. He wasn’t disloyal, of course he wasn’t. He’d kill anyone for suggesting such a thing, with the First Lord’s blessing. He was simply forthright, a quality which had to be valuable amongst all the yes-men that made up the senior ranks of the army and the political class.

“For heaven’s sake don’t repeat that when you get there.” He laughed as though it was a hilarious joke, not a matter of life or death.

“I’m not an idiot, daddy. So come on. Why the change of heart?”

Daddy stopped his pacing then came and sat down beside me. “You’ve been invited by Peter Delamare.”

“The Head of Press? I didn’t know he even knew my name.” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice.

A few month ago, my father had hosted a grand gathering of south-western dignitaries, and the man that everyone understood to be the Regime’s second-in-command had been the guest of honour. I’d watched him from a distance, awed by his beauty and flamboyance, by the way everyone deferred to him. Daddy had welcomed him and shook his hand. My sister – on good behaviour for once and wearing the approved nineteen-twenties fashions instead of a trouser suit – had said hello with a curtsey and a smirk. I’d longed to introduce myself, but an uncharacteristic shyness had descended.

“Apparently you made an impression. Perhaps all that time you spend on your hair isn’t entirely wasted.”

I laughed and flicked the offending golden curls over my shoulder. The colour was natural, but I spent hours a week waving my poker straight locks.

It was good to spend a moment talking about something normal, to allow myself to be girlish and my father to gently tease me. But I was more than just a pretty face. I took a deep breath. “I was under the impression that the Head of Press doesn’t invite anyone anywhere. What would happen if I refused?”

My father closed his eyes. “Maybe nothing. Maybe a firmer summons. Maybe an FLA company to take you to London. Maybe my name ruled out next time there’s a promotion up for grabs. Maybe this house razed to the ground. Maybe the south west bombed like Nottingham. The worst case scenarios are a little far-fetched. But I wouldn’t stake everything on them not happening.

I swallowed. I wanted this more than anything, but I wanted it to feel like my choice. What would be expected of me? Did the Head of Press want me as a plaything? As an accessory to the court? As a way of controlling my father?

“I’ll go, of course I will. And I’ll make this family proud.”

“I know you will. You’ve always been the best of daughters. You’ll leave this evening. Say your goodbyes, and change into something more fitting. None of these black gowns.”

I frowned and ran my hands down the velvet bodice. “I’m wearing black in memory of the Eternal Blessed First Lady. It’s respectful.”

I’d cried and cried when she’d died. On the first day, my father had watched approvingly, like I was playing my part well. When the tears continued into a second and third day, he’d frowned, as if I was being far too serious about the whole thing.

“The official period of mourning is over. The other women at Somerset House don’t wear black out of respect. They wear their brightest colours and jockey for position.”

I fiddled with my long, dark sleeve. “I’m not those other woman. If I’m doing this, I’ll do it on my terms.”

***

Five hours of driving and an endless number of check points later, we drove over Waterloo Bride and arrived at Somerset House. It was just as impressive as it looked on the television broadcasts.

A guard admitted my chauffeur through a back gate. He checked my papers – including a letter of invitation from the Head of Press – once more and summoned another guard.

“I’m Daniel,” the newcomer announced, taking my arm. “I’ve been tasked with taking you to your room.”

His eyes ran over my face, my hair, the long black dress I’d insisted on wearing. His gaze wasn’t lustful. His eyes narrowed in puzzlement, and he seemed about to make some comment, before his military training kicked in.

The room he showed me to was smaller and less obviously opulent than the one I was used to at home, but the sense of age and majesty and the view of the river made up for it.

“Sit and rest, ma’am,” the guard ordered. “Make yourself comfortable. The Head of Press will be here shortly.” He gave me one last appraising gaze, then left.

I checked the door out of interest. Locked, as I’d assumed.

At the precise moment when I was starting to get nervous, the door opened without anyone knocking.

I dropped into a curtsey on autopilot, grateful that the etiquette training I’d received was enough to cut through my fascination and trepidation. From my crouched position, I glanced modestly up at the Head of Press. Both the good looks and the aura of power I’d sensed from a distance at father’s ball were magnified rather than diminished this close too.

He left me where I was a little longer than respect and politeness technically demanded, while his eyes swept over me with a smirk.

“The resemblance is quite uncanny – to the propaganda image at least, less so to reality. Though I’d have laughed to see the real Marianne show me such supplication.”

I blushed and broke eye-contact. The guard’s puzzled stares suddenly made sense. I’d modelled my image on the First Lady, but so had any number of women of my age and station. Few of them really pulled it off – and I hadn’t been convinced I’d managed to do so until confronted by the reaction of people who had actually know her. Hopefully they’d see it as respectful flattery, not mocking imitation.

“Get up,” the Head of Press ordered, just as my calf muscles were beginning to protest. “First impressions are perfect, just as I suspected, but let’s get a proper look at you.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, rising to my feet with practised elegance.

“Take your dress off,” he said, in the calm, impassive tone of someone giving an order on the battlefield, not someone making a sexual request. Even so, something in his voice made me shiver. If anyone asked, I’d have claimed the reaction was due to shame, but for all my attempts at modesty, that wasn’t the full story.

My hands fumbled on the delicate buttons of the dress, which opened down the back.

The Head of Press crossed the space between us, placed one hand firmly on my left shoulder, and with the other, began opening the buttons.

I stiffened.

“Please don’t be so tense,” he drawled. “I’m not intending to do anything inappropriate – not yet, anyway. I simply want to ensure I’m able to present you in the most effective way. There’s really very little difference between this and practicing for a speech.”

The dress fell away, leaving me standing there in my respectable white cotton underwear.

My companion took a step back and stared at me as though debating a matter of international diplomacy.

“Turn around,” he said.

I did as he asked. The whole situation was too bizarre for any real nerves. Besides, there was something thrilling about one of the most powerful, eligible men in the country showing me such absolute, focussed attention by such absolute, focussed attention.

“Turn around again. Now bend over. Now stretch.”

I did as he requested. Mostly, I stared straight ahead, but once in a while, I glanced back at him. There was no sense of lust or twisted amusement in his expression, no indication of a horny man enjoying the sight of an attractive woman or a powerful leader exploiting his position.

“I’ve heard all about your legendary charm,” I whispered, after the bizarre game had dragged on a little too long. “Is this the approach you take with all the women? With the men? Because if it is, I’m amazed you have as much success as everyone claims.”

I tensed, waiting to see how the words would land. Foolish to speak to carelessly, to attempt to make a joke. I’d never been able to keep my mouth shut. In the safety of home, there was only so much damage my words could do, but here, they could mean death.

“Thank God. You may not have got the lingerie, but you’ve certainly got the attitude. I’m not sure meek and respectful would have quite got the job done, no matter how pretty your hair.”

He walked over to one of the antique wardrobes and withdrew a heavy silk dressing gown. He held it up and beckoned to me. I crossed the floor and let him help me into its luxurious embrace. I hadn’t realised how vulnerable my semi-naked state had left me until I was clothed again.

The Head of Press’ hands lingered on my arms for a moment, then he helped me into a over-stuffed chair.

“I’m usually a lot more charming than this, I promise. That’s because usually, the only thing at stake is my own lust and amusement. But this is a matter of state.”

I should have seen where all of this was leading. But I was young, unworldly, and in awe. Why would the truth even have crossed my mind? So I just smiled and bowed my head.

He pulled out a phone. “Get the Chief Beautician to Room 7, Upper Riverside Corridor. Tell her it’s my personal order, and ignore any of her attempts at cheek.”

“What now?” I murmured.

“Now, Cinderella, we get you ready for the ball. That underwear is a non-starter. I see where you’re coming from with the black dress and that’s a great concept, but we can do a better take on the same theme. And those lovely blonde curls and big blue eyes are perfect, but we can exaggerate them more. Would you like a drink while Chantelle works her magic? Champagne?”

I smiled. Despite his claims of this being a serious business, he seemed to be relaxing into the flirtatious mode I’d heard about in a dozen scandalised stories.

The door opened and a woman in her early thirties stormed inside, brandishing a make-up bag like a grenade. She wasn’t beautiful – far from it – but her hair and face were enough of a work of art to convince you otherwise on first and even second glance.

Her eyes alighted on me and she crossed her arms and turned her head to Peter.

“Who is this, Peter? What game are you playing now?” Her harsh Birmingham accent set my teeth on edge.

Peter (I could call him that. I could be part of the inner circle) smiled. “Never you mind, Chantelle. Just work your magic. She’s already beautiful. Make her irresistible.”

“Make her look more like Marianne, you mean? I don’t know whether this is for your own twisted amusement or some sort of plot, but I’m having no part in it.”

She glared at me like I was an accessory to evil. I flinched back.

Peter crossed the space between them and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You know I outrank you a thousand times over. You know that everything I do is to protect the Regime and make the First Lord happy. And you know that your little protectoress is dead. I suggest you show respect while it’s optional, before it ceases to be so.”

He released her and strode out of the room. I missed his presence immediately.

“So now Peter’s done with his grandstanding, are you going to tell me who the hell you are?”

I curtseyed. It seemed the safest bet. She may have been lower-ranked than Peter, but I had no idea where she stood in the hierarchy relative to me. “Olivia Livelton, ma’am. My father governs the South West. The Head of Press invited me to court.”

Chantelle sank into an armchair. “Did he, indeed? Why are you wearing black, Olivia? It’s not the fashion anymore.”

I ran my hands self-consciously over the velvet bodice. “I’m still in mourning for the Eternal Blessed First Lady. I hadn’t realised that would be such a controversial position, in Somerset House of all places.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Is this more of Peter’s scheming, or is this from the heart?”

“From the heart. I swear.”

Chantelle walked over to me. “Marianne Helmsley was no saint. No eternal blessed anything. In fact, she could be a real bitch. But she was always loyal to her friends. And I’m one of the oldest of them. If you’re truly loyal to the better half of the Regime, I’ll help you out.”

Before I could answer, she descended on me in a blur of powder and curlers and scent.

“Please tell me you understand what Peter is trying to do here?” she asked, after several minutes of silence and beautification.

I shook my head very lightly, careful not to dislodge my newly tightened curls. “I don’t think I understand anything. All I know is home and the south west. Court’s a blur.”

“The second most powerful man in the country has found someone with a vague resemblance to the dearly departed First Lady and groomed her to make the resemblance more uncanny. What do you think his game is?”

Before I could answer – or really let my mind engage with her question – Peter re-entered.

“I’ve got to hand it to you, Chantelle, you’ve achieved perfection. The perfect balance between saucy and demure. Sexy and sophisticated. Loyal to the memory of what’s gone before and eager for the future. The First Lady of the imagination, the Marianne of reality, and something all her own.”

He took a possessive hold of my arm.

“Let’s go to the ball.”

 

The Dictator’s Wife and #FreeMelania

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“Yet still people persisted in believing that just because I had ovaries, I must have been sobbing into my pillow at night at the thought of my husband’s atrocities. Newsflash: I laid on his shoulder, thinking about how much I loved him, while urging us on.” TDW, Chapter Ten

I don’t generally write much about politics on this blog or my Twitter account – which may seem odd, considering both the sheer amount of politics going on over the last twelve months, and my book’s overtly political themes.

For the record, this isn’t due to apathy or disinterest. I work as a civil servant in a relatively senior role in central government, and as a result – unless I wanted to go full National Parks Service – I’m subject to pretty strict rules about what I can and can’t talk about online, particularly in relation to showing support or opposition to particular politicians or policies.

I planned today’s blog earlier in the week. There’s been so much going on between now and then that it feels a little odd to focus on a comparatively minor issue, but it’s one it’s acceptable for me to comment on, and one that’s oddly relevant to one of my books.

I’m talking about #freemelania – because after all, wives of… erm… political leaders are sort of my specialist subject.

In many ways, the hashtag seems innocent enough, especially considered alongside so much of this week’s news. It’s based on the idea that the President’s wife really, really doesn’t want to be there and is basically being held captive by her husband.  Part joke, part one more line of attack against Trump, and perhaps part, in some people’s minds, a genuine belief.

melania

Certainly, you can find a good few pictures where she looks less than enthusiastic, and I would concede that based on evidence so far, she is less likely either to be or even to want to be a semi-equal partner in the Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton mould.

All the same, it reminds me of one of the main themes of The Dictator’s Wife – people’s consistent inability to believe that the eponymous wife, Marianne, can possibly be as committed as her husband, Julien, to their autocratic Regime, and that she must be relatively nice and regret his more extreme actions.

As Marianne comments after the rebels start broadcasting videos urging her to curb her husband’s worse excesses (which incidentally is based on a real video aimed at Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9210007/UN-ambassadors-wives-produce-video-urging-Asma-al-Assad-to-stop-violence-in-Syria.html)

I hated that video and that whole campaign. I hated it for the way it depicted the Regime as the bad guys, of course, but I’d come to expect that from the Treaty. What I couldn’t stomach was the patronising assumption I was an unwilling participant in my husband’s “crimes.”

 An odd theory, sprouted by housewives and certain hard-core feminists alike, claims that if women ran the world, it would be a nicer place. There wouldn’t be wars. The female leaders would sit down and talk problems through, as though they were gossiping in a wine bar. There wouldn’t be poverty. They’d be far too nurturing to allow that to happen.

 Tell that to Thatcher, Merkel, or Elizabeth I. There have been nowhere near enough women leaders, but of those that have pulled it off, I see little evidence of treating the country like a cosy kitchen and other countries as friends to compliment and confide in.

 “They aren’t real women. They act like men.” The whispered mantra every time a powerful woman declares war, literally or metaphorically.

 Actually, no. They act like leaders. Very few men have the requisite strength of character to run a country and protect it against its enemies. Plenty of touchy-feely men care about people’s feelings and hate war, but they don’t make it to the top any more than stereotypical women do. Or, in the rare instances where they pull it off, their principles and preferences quickly crumble under the harsh reality of what it takes to hold a state together.

 Yet still people persisted in believing that just because I had ovaries, I must have been sobbing into my pillow at night at the thought of my husband’s atrocities. Newsflash: I laid on his shoulder, thinking about how much I loved him, while urging us on.

 When they realised I possessed no sympathy to their cause of peace and conciliation, the rebels began to truly hate me, not just because of my actions, views or allegiances, but because I challenged all their ideas of what a woman should be. Because I looked them in the eye and let them know the truth: they could turn the patriarchy into the matriarchy, and I would still ensure that history would bury them.

 Julien’s evil was understandable; mine was unforgivable.

 In the book, half the point is that Marianne is an equal partner in the Regime and as bad – if not worse – than her husband. On balance, I doubt that either of those things are true of Melania. But equally, I doubt that she’s some angel, or held against her will.  I don’t believe you can be in a relationship with someone with such strong views and not either broadly agree with them or at least not feel actively opposed to them. We know very little of her political views, beyond a fairly non-partisan uncontroversial anti-bullying stance, and this rather darker video where she opines on Obama’s birth certificate:

I honestly have no idea whether she’s tearfully trying to persuade Trump to revoke his Muslim ban, urging him to extend it to more countries, or ignoring it entirely in favour of a discussion on what dress to wear to their next ball. Neither do I know whether she stays with him through gritted teeth for the sake of the money and their child, or whether she loves and reveres him for his power and his outspoken ways – but some of her old pre-election tweets suggest a degree of admiration – https://twitter.com/MELANIATRUMP/status/482876950361280512

Far from being entirely oblivious to politics, I imagine she must be shaped to some degree by her upbringing in a then-Communist state and by her own experiences as an immigrant, but have no idea whether that gives her sympathy for other immigrants or a mentality of wanting to close the door behind her. I can take a guess on all counts, but it would be nothing more than speculation.

I can’t help but feel that her conventionally attractive appearance and her past as a model contribute to this idea that she can’t possibly have strong political views or sympathy for her husband’s stances. And to me, denying Melania any blame for her husband’s views and actions is just as patronising as denying Michelle any credit for her husband’s would have been.

Like I said, it’s hardly the most important Trump-related issue of the week. But I do think it’s crucial that critics stick to their principles when attacking him, and for me, a major principle is starting from the presumption that until proven otherwise, every woman – pretty ones included – has agency, thoughts and views.

A picture is worth a thousand words

\those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably seen this already, but for those who haven’t, I achieved one of my all-time writing dreams over Christmas – someone drawing a picture of characters from one of my books. Technically, I think the dream was around spontaneous fanart, but I’ll 100% settle for the fact that my husband commissioned something for me. The picture is below, and I genuinely could not be more delighted by it.

commission-drawing

The picture shows Julien and Marianne, the main characters from The Dictator’s Wife (ie. eponymous wife and eponymous dictator) standing outside their stronghold at Somerset House after Marianne’s return from five years with the enemy. My two favourite things about it (apart from “its existence” and “everything about it”) is firstly, that in the background you can see the giant posters of the two of them with their slogans underneath:

“It was the larger-than-life portraits covering the front of Somerset House that caught my attention.

The painting on the left showed a striking man in replica nineteenth-century military uniform. Honour the First Lord demanded the words inscribed above the image.

The text above the right-hand painting was more mournful: Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady. The woman depicted in the image appeared as fragile and innocent as a rococo shepherdess, but my co-conspirators considered her a she-devil in life and their most high-profile victim in death.”

Secondly, that they are wearing specific outfits from a scene in the book, which dates it to First Lady Day.

“I had to admit that the sky-blue, A-line dress struck a nice balance between authoritative and attractive.

I burrowed into his chest. I doubted the stylists had put him through quite the same rigours as me, though he was freshly shaven and his hair had been neatly trimmed and gelled. Besides, his ceremonial eighteenth-century military uniform cost more than my beautiful silk dress any day.”

I’m definitely intending to get My Love is Vengeance and Cavaliers ones done at some point. For anyone looking for something similar, the artist’s website is here: http://taratjah.tumblr.com/commissions.

As well as the commissioning option, for anyone interested in YA fantasy, she has some amazing drawings of characters and scenes from some of my favourite books.

Querying – the rookie errors

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A few weeks ago, I was asked on Twitter about the thing that scares me most about querying, and I responded Being confident you’ve mostly stopped making rookie errors, but having no idea how to get from “nothing wrong” to “good enough”

And I’m afraid that as a yet-unagented author, there’s not a lot I can tell my fellow wannabes about how to succeed. But I’ve spent a lot of time reading blogs, talking to people a few steps further on than me, and interacting on Twitter. And as I say, I like to think I’ve stopped making rookie errors. And for those of you just starting out on the querying journey, I’d like to share what I’ve picked up. But first, two disclaimers:

  1. I am not a publisher, an agent, or a traditionally published author. What I am is someone who’s done their research, and I’m pretty confident that everything below is generally accepted. That said, I’d love to hear from people more expert than me with corrections, clarifications or additions.
  2. This isn’t intended to be an article on “how to write a good query” or “how to get an agent.” That’s complicated, subtle, and subjective. But I recently heard from an agent that she ignores nearly 80% of the queries she receives as they have fundamental problems. If you follow the tips below, I can’t claim you’ll have agents falling at your feet, but you should at least avoid them throwing your query out without a second glance because of something easy to fix

ORDER OF PRIORITY

If you’re sitting there with a question about your submission, prioritise in the following way:

1)Any instructions on the agency’s website/the agent’s Twitter/blog/MSWL page – it’s rare that an agent goes completely off-piste, but when they do, respect that over everything else, even if it’s totally contrary to all the advice you’ve read elsewhere

2) Basic industry standards – ie. the suggestions below and similar guidelines on other websites and blogs

3) If an issue arises and it’s not covered in specific or general guidelines, then remember the three Ps – politeness, professionalism, precision (ie. giving the agent the information they need in a clear way). And at that point, if you still can’t decide whether or not to include something, chances are it doesn’t matter either way.

THE BASICS

  • Make sure you do some research and only contact agents who rep books in your genre and age category. Don’t agonise over this though. It’s not about trying to find the handful of agents looking for something exactly like your novel, just not sending your erotic thriller to someone who only wants children’s picture books!
  • Send one email to each agent, not a mass email to all the ones you’re interested in
  • Only submit to one agent at each agency at at time. In some cases, it’s fine to contact another after the first’s rejected you. Others strongly discourage this.
  • Try to keep the email under 300 words
  • Use a standard font and size – Times New Roman or Arial are the safest bets
  • You need to provide a polite, professional letter that tells the agent about your book and generally (see below) a bit about you and about why you’re submitting to that agent. Some agents will also want a synopsis and/or a writing sample, ranging in length from a few pages to several chapters. Provide exactly what’s asked for. Don’t send anything weird and random like a cover design or a photograph of you. Don’t provide a longer extract than you’ve been asked for. If requirements are unclear, stick with just the letter.
  • Avoid attachments unless the agency specifically requires them or you might not make it through the security filters
  • Triple-check the letter (and any synopsis or writing sample) for typos or grammatical mistakes. If you can’t properly proofcheck something 300 words long, it’s not going to fill an agent with confidence about how well the manuscript’s been edited.
  • Address the email personally to the agent (ie. Dear Bob or Dear Ms Smith – not Dear Agent or Dear Sir). Make sure the name is spelled correctly. Some agents seem to prefer first names, some surnames, but unless it’s specified, either seems fine.
  • You should only be querying finished, polished manuscripts and querying one manuscript in each query (ie. I’ve written a YA fantasy and an adult speculative thriller – even if an agent repped both genres and age groups, I’d only mention one)
  • Generally, agents don’t seem to want to rep self-published works, unless they’e been wildly, 50 Shades of Grey-style successful. I’m hugely in favour of self-publishing for the right reasons (say you’ve written a vampire trilogy at a point when the market’s saturated – just for example…) but don’t do it as an attempted first step to a traditional publishing deal

THE KEY PIECES OF FACTUAL INFORMATION

  • Include the word count, rounded to the nearest thousand. And make sure it’s appropriate. Opinions vary on exact cut-off points, but for a standard adult novel you want to be roughly in the 75 000 to 100 000 range (though 80 to 90k is probably safest).There are different, but equally strict rules for books for younger audiences and certain genres. If you’re not in the right range, you need to get cutting or filling before you think about querying.
  • Include the age category. There’s a very limited, set list to choose from. Don’t claim the book is suitable for everyone from 9 months to 90. Don’t insist it has cross-over appeal, even if you genuinely think it might. If you really think it has elements of more than one category, at best you need to decide on the closest fit, at worst you might need to edit up or down.
  • Include the genre. Pick one that everyone’s heard of, rather than making up your own. You can mix a handful together and add an adjective or two: “A romantic thriller” “a dark fantasy” “a romance with speculative elements” but don’t get carried away and call it something like “a dark romantic historical fantasy horror thriller” even if that is a fair description. If it’s borderline (and believe me, I know that pain thanks to the Dictator’s Wife – a dark near-future romantic political dystopian thriller) pick the closest fit and/or the one most likely to attract the specific agent you’re querying.
  • Include your contact details. Obviously.

THE MEAT OF THE QUERY – DESCRIBING YOUR BOOK

  • The main point of the letter is to explain what your book is about. This is by far the hardest bit to get right, and doing it well is outside of the scope of this blog post. But basically, you want something akin to the info you get on the back of books – not a plot summary, not the ending, just a bit of info about the main character and the issues they are facing, to help the agent understand the plot and make them intrigued enough to want to read more.
  • Don’t write the letter/the description of the book from the point of view of a character.
  • Don’t mention the entire cast – focus on the main character and perhaps the antagonist and/or love interest. If there’s more than one main character, this can get tricky, but try to stay focussed – if you were writing one for the first Game of Thrones book, perhaps you’d only talk about the situation Ned Stark finds himself in.
  • Don’t comment on the quality of the book, either to claim it’s the best thing ever or to be self-deprecating. Let the story and your writing speak for itself.
  • Similarly, don’t disparage your genre, whether it’s to make a humorous point or to attempt to claim your book is so much better in comparison.
  • And on the same note, don’t attack agents/publishers/the industry.
  • Avoid rhetorical questions, however tempting, along with their close relation “imagine if X”
  • Avoid lots of technical, confusing terms (particularly made-up words and places in fantasy and sci-fi)
  • Be specific. Avoid phrases like “they face lots of obstacles” or “if they succeed, they’ll achieve everything they’ve ever dreamed of.” Explain what those obstacles of dreams are.

THE OPTIONAL  (?) EXTRAS – this section is a little more subjective and up for debate…

  • Personalisation – some agents seem to see this as practically compulsory, some seem to slightly dislike it, others appear to have no strong feelings. If you can, it’s probably good practice on balance to add a line or two about why you’re contacting this specific agent – an author they rep, a line in their MSWL, something they said on Twitter. If you’ve really not got anything to say, you don’t need to force it, but then again, you maybe need to ask yourself whether you really should be querying them. Don’t get carried away though – a line or two is enough and you don’t want to sound like a stalker.
  • Bios – Again, agent opinion on authors including information about themselves seems to range from mandatory to unenthusiastic. As always, follow guidelines and preferences, but if an agent doesn’t seem to have a view, I’d err on the side of including something, but keeping it shortand relevant (meaningful writing credits, things that make you qualified to write this specific story, things the specific agent might be interested in, interesting/humourous/memorable facts).
  • Comp titles (ie. listing books that are similar to yours) – an absolute minefield, in my experience. If you pick the right ones, it can be immensely illuminating, especially if your book is a bit unique or a blur of genres. But it’s probably better not to include any than include ones that provide no additional clarity or give agents the wrong idea. If you are going to include them, the key rules I’ve heard are: stick to books published within the last five years and don’t use mega-blockbusters (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Da Vinci Code etc) on the one hand or very niche titles on the other.

THE WRITING SAMPLE

Saying much about this is going way beyond the scope of this post, but there are a couple of headlines I’ve seen that relate to the query:

  • Don’t send a prologue
  • Try to avoid an opening chapter that has no obvious connection to the characters and plot described in the letter
  • Avoid starting with characters waking up, taking a class or looking in a mirror (in a cheap attempt to get a description in) or with descriptions of the weather.

So, what do and don’t you agree with? What have I missed? And which of these mistakes have you made in the past?

The Dictator’s Wife Playlist

If there’s one thing that helps me write and keeps up my enthusiasm for my books, it’s listening to music that reminds me of the characters, plot or themes. Ages ago, I made and shared a playlist for The Cavaliers, which you can find here. Today, I’ve decided to share a snapshot of some of the songs that I associate with the Dictator’s Wife. It’s quite a mix of musical styles, which seems fitting for a book that can’t be neatly slotted into any one genre.

If anyone has read The Dictator’s Wife and has any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.

You can listen to the whole list here:

Blank Space – Taylor Swift

“Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”

You want an antiheroine/borderline villain protagonist? This song delivers it in spades. Almost more than the lyrics (which suit Marianne beautifully), it’s the accompanying video of this which really reminds me of The Dictator’s Wife. That vibe of beautiful blonde woman in vintage clothes and tall, dark, handsome guy alternating between romance and violence and a stunning mansion – it could pretty much be a trailer.

  • You’ll Be Back – Hamilton Soundtrack

“You say, the price you my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay.”

If I was only aloud to pick one song for this list, it’d be this. In the actual musical, this is King George III complaining about America declaring independence, presented like a psychotic break-up song. But to put it another way, it’s an absolutist British ruler losing it because someone he loves has left him. And as such, each and every lyric is perfect for the way things stand at the start of The Dictator’s Wife and for the overall themes of the book.

The combination of jaunty tune and chilling lyrics captures Julien’s demeanor perfectly and the slightly too forced attempt at a cut-glass English accent is exactly how I imagine him speaking.

One of the most memorable lines of the song  is”I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love” – which is literally what Jules does: “It was total overkill. He flattened the town. But he did it in memory of you, so in his eyes, he did what he had to do.”

  • When We Were Young – Adele

“You still look like a movie, you still sound like a song, my God this reminds me, of when we were young.”

This gorgeous ballad is all about meeting up with someone years after you were together and hoping there’s still some magic there. It perfectly captures the moment that Marianne returns to Somerset House, unsure whether she’s going to be killed or reinstated as First Lady. And the focus on reminiscing about how things used to be works perfectly with the novel’s duel timeline.

  • The Bagman’s Gambit – the Decemberists 

“They flashed a photograph, it couldn’t be you
You’d been abused so horribly
But you were there in some anonymous room”

Lots of the Decemberists songs – particularly their older ones – have a lot of plot going on. But this one, which appears to be about an American Government official and a Russian spy in the early twentieth century, is particularly involved. The specifics of the complex narrative don’t particularly tally with the story in my book, but the general themes of political plotting and a cycle of obsessive love and violent betrayal are very similar. Plus, the song jumps back and forth in time “It was ten years on, when you resurfaced in a motorcar” in a rather familiar way.

That said, the lyrics quoted above absolutely capture that moment that Julien finds Marianne held prisoner and tortured by his own men and, let’s say, does not deal with the situation in the calmest manner.

While I’m on the subject of the Decemberists, the song I listened to the most while I wrote the first draft was one of their newer releases, Make You Better. As a result, that song is also indelibly associated with it in my mind, though apart from the line “like the perfect paramour you were in your letters” I can’t find much of a logical connection.

  • I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You – Evita Soundtrack  

“It seems crazy but you must believe
There’s nothing calculated, nothing planned
Please forgive me if I seem naive
I would never want to force your hand.”

Quite simply, the best song I’ve ever heard about a scheming woman getting together with a military dictator. There are a couple of references to Evita scattered through the book (generally whenever Peter is trying to wind Marianne up) and it should come as no surprise that my favorite ever musical was a major inspiration. As a result, whole swathes of the soundtrack would be relevant to this playlist, but I’ve settled on this one, as it’s genuinely romantic and beautiful, while still functioning as a hymn for Lady Macbeth types. I see this song as the perfect backdrop for the moment in the initial flashback chapter when Julien and Marianne meet for the first time.

  • Run This Town – Jay Z/Rihanna/Kayne West

 

Basically, it’s a song about power – the highs of it, the lows of it, and the things people will do to get it. I see this as the song for J&M’s coup, when everything could go horribly wrong for them but they choose to take their chances.

And what I really love is that it’s the guys who are making all these bold claims about their wealth and their control and how their enemies are going down, but it’s the woman, with her chorus of “Life’s a game but it’s not fair, I break the rules so I don’t care” who’s the really sinister one.

Plus, even if Taylor Swift and the man in the Blank Space video look rather more like the way the characters are canonically described, I just love the idea of Jay Z as Julien and Rihanna as Marianne. I guess that would make Kayne Peter…

A Dictator’s Wife spin-off short story: Right-Hand Man

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I’ve been editing and pitching non-stop recently, and I felt like flexing my writing muscles. This is a short story linked to The Dictator’s Wife. It probably works best if you’ve read that manuscript ( you only need to ask!) but for anyone who hasn’t and is interested, here are the basics.

The British Government has been overthrown by a military coup, led by Julien St John Helmsley. Julien runs the country as an autocratic dictator, revered by some and despised by others. The Dictator’s Wife is told from the point of view of Marianne Helmsley, Julien’s beloved wife. Half the chapters focus on how they met and their rise to power, culminating in Marianne seemingly faking her own death and fleeing to join the resistance. The other, alternating chapters focus on her return five years later, when she is torn between assassinating her husband and resuming her position of absolute power at his side.

This story takes place a few months into the missing five years that separate the two halves of the book. It’s told from the POV of one of my favourite characters: Peter Delamare, the Regime’s Head of Propaganda, Julien’s best friend and unrequired lover, and the son of the US Ambassador.  

RIGHT-HAND MAN

I poured myself my seventh coffee of the day from the gleaming machine, took off the glasses I’d never be seen in in public, and rubbed my aching eyes. I’d spent the last eight days coping on four hours sleep a night and barely rising from my desk during waking hours.

Where I could, I’d delegated, postponed or ignored the rising tide of questions and concerns that plagued the official email accounts, post rooms and inquiry lines. Reports from spies. Plans from party members. Frantic pleas from ordinary people for the Regime to answer their prayers.

Despite my ruthless prioritisation and the desperate effectiveness with which I’d worked through those documents intended for Julien’s eyes only, I never seemed to make a dint in the backlog.

I took a deep breath and slipped my glasses back on, ignoring the protests of my sleep-deprived eyes. The Regime survived because it had always been a slick machine. We were only as strong as our clever policies. As our stirring speeches and impressive public appearances. As our supportive responses to loyalists and our brutal crackdowns on those who dissented. I was dammed if I’d let the machine grind to a halt on my watch.

I sighed at the sound of a knock at the door. Few people could claim to be more of an extrovert than me, but the only way I could keep the whole edifice from crashing down around our heads was to cloister myself away, drive myself as hard as I could, and pray that Julien pulled himself together soon.

I downed the coffee, pulled off the glasses and forced my face into a laconic smile. “Come in,” I called, satisfied that I had just about enough energy left to project the image of myself that people wanted to see.

Matthew, a toned and perceptive junior member of the press team who I’d had my wicked way with just last week crept through the door.

His wide-eyed expression exhausted me. Half-terrified I’d throw curses and orders in his direction, half-pleading with me to love him.

“Good to see you Matthew,” I managed, with a suggestive wink. “What can I do for you?”

“General Moreham to see you, sir.” He bowed, an affection I never knew whether to regard as flattering or alarming. I received nearly as much orchestrated respect as Jules, nowadays.

“Just when I thought this evening couldn’t get any better.” I raised my eyebrows, welcoming him into the joke. The two of us against one of the most senior military figures in the land.

He responded with a gratified grin. I’d have invited him to share my bed again, were it not for the fact that I knew I’d pass out the moment I went anywhere near it.

“Send the bastard in.”

The thought of dealing with Moreham exhausted me more than ever, but sharpened my nerves at the same time. Many people in Somerset House regarded him as little more than a buffoon, but I knew how central he’d been to our coup. I knew that the public respected his bluff manner as fervently as they despised my polished style.

Matthew disappeared, and moment later, returned with Richard Moreham. He stomped into the room, red-faced and breathing heavily.

“Richard! What a delight. Some coffee? Something stronger?”

Moreham didn’t bow. In the Regime’s complex web of etiquette and hierarchy, we officially stood on an equal level, though everyone knew which of us had the First Lord’s ear.

“Is this your latest toyboy? Get him to fetch me some port, and then get him out of here. I want to talk to you alone.”

I prided myself on my control of my emotions, but with this little sleep and this much pressure, my nerves were fraying. No one was better place to push me over the edge than Moreham.

I gave Matthew another of our “shared joke” glances. “Please fetch the General a drink, Matthew. And then get some rest. You’ve worked hard today.”

Mercifully, Moreham resisted the urge to make any more inappropriate comments. Matthew brought him a large glass filled with a good vintage, and then walked away, glancing at me as he left.

“What brings you down from the north, Richard? And perhaps more importantly, what brings you to my office in the middle of the night?”

Moreham drained his glass and slammed it down. “You’ve got to make him pull himself together. The First Lord moping around like this, it’s putting the Regime in jeopardy. He needs to get over her.”

His words echoed my thoughts, but it infuriated me to hear them on someone else’s lips. I wanted Julien to pull himself together because I cared. Moreham merely sounded irritated.

“His wife was murdered, Richard. That tends to upset people.”

“It upsets ordinary people. But if he wants everyone to treat him like a god, he needs to act like one. And if he won’t do it himself, you need to intervene.”

I was too tired for this. The room blurred in and out of focus, and my eyes watered.

“Then you do it. You talk to him.”

Richard’s hand closed around the crystal wine glass. “Drop the bullshit. In front of the rest of the Cabinet, I’ll indulge in power struggles and infighting, but in private, I’ll admit to what we both know. If he’ll listen to anyone, it’s you.”

I wanted to drop my head into my hands. I wanted to sleep. But just like the Regime itself, I was only as powerful as the image I managed to convey. So I smirked and ran my hand through my hair.

“You really think I haven’t tried? You really think I haven’t spent every hour of the last few months trying to snap Julien out of it? You think it doesn’t kill me to see him like this?”

Moreham shot me that punchable grin of his. “I thought you might like the fact that his wife’s out of the way and that he’s feeling vulnerable. Surely it just gives you an opening. We all know that your little secretaries aren’t enough to satisfy you.”

The same old slur every time. The suspicion that I was just waiting for my moment and then I’d pounce on a poor, defenceless Julien. Everyone from jealous senior officials to scathing rebels took my pure, honest love and turned it into something sordid and sinister.

I climbed to my feet, fighting to keep my body language relaxed and my expression laconic, but unable quite to keep my voice expressionless and amused.

“I love Julien. I’ve never denied it. But do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I’m in denial? I know my feelings aren’t reciprocated. At least not in that way. And I love him enough that I’d never embarrass him by trying to push myself forward. I want to see him happy. And I liked Marianne. I’m sad she’s dead. So don’t you dare try to spin this any other way.”

Moreham hauled himself up. “I’ll leave. But I didn’t come here to offend you. Just please do whatever you can to make him his old self again.”

***

The temptation to dwell on Moreham’s words and sheer unpleasant presence almost overcame me, but I took a deep breath and yet another swig of coffee. Letting the thoughts fester would only delay my impossible workload still further. And though my ever-scheming mind longed to plot to get rid of him, now was no time for intrigue and power struggles. Now was a time for an absolute show of unity.

My glasses and my concentrated frown returned to my face. 2am. If I staggered into bed by four, I could be up again by 7am, in time for a slightly delayed press briefing. Any later and I’d be unable to function tomorrow. Any earlier, and I had no chance of finishing the non-negotiable tasks. The press briefing itself. Julien’s speech for his monthly address to the people. A crucial letter to the Chinese ambassador.

Just two hours, I told myself. Two hours of absolute concentration, then you can sleep.

I started with the speech. As always, the bit of my mind I tried to silence dreamed of addressing the public myself. Of being the one in the spotlight. I despised the part of me that dared to think such a thing. It was for Julien. It was all for Julien.

Another knock at the door shattered my concentration into a thousand pieces. I glanced at my watch. Nearly three already. I was on track, but could afford no distractions. I didn’t care if it was a top official, an armed rebel or someone who wanted to give me a crucial piece of information. No one was coming through that door.

“I’m a little preoccupied, I’m afraid,” I drawled, trying to make my tone as salacious as possible, in the hope they’d assume it was a minor orgy keeping me up and not a tower of paperwork. I’ve always found it helps to work on one’s reputation.

“It’s me. If it’s your latest conquest, send them out. If it’s work, it can wait.”

I gripped the table and pulled myself to my shaky legs, in order to unlock the door. It wasn’t as if I could keep Julien out. It was his palace, after all, and we all served at his pleasure. Even so, if I’d asked nicely, he’d probably have left me alone. But work or no work, I didn’t want to send him away.

I didn’t remove my glasses or rearrange my expression. It was ironic. The only person whose opinion of me I really cared about was the person I put the least effort into keeping up a polished persona in front of. Julien knew the real me from long ago, and I had no wish to hide that from him.

I bowed as he entered, half ironically, half with a real fervour that burned inside me.

A thin smile lit up his strained face. “You don’t have to bow to me. Not in private, anyway.”

I grinned back. “But I like to. You know that.”

I took a good look at him as I pulled myself back up to my full height. Bloodshot eyes. An uncharacteristic stubbly beard. Dark circles and a hunched, clenched posture. Slightly worn jeans and shirt in place of his usual, majestic military and formal vintage wear. He still looked beautiful to me, but it was a sick kind of beauty.

“Jesus Christ, Jules. When did you last sleep? Last eat? You can’t be seen in public like this.”

He shot people for lesser insults. But not me. Surely never me.

“I could ask you the same questions. You can’t burn yourself out to save me.”

“I can, I shall, and you can’t stop me. But for now, I’ll take a break. Sit down, let me get you a drink, and tell me what can’t wait until morning.”

For a moment, my mind couldn’t help but do the calculations. At least an hour’s work still to do. Three am already. I couldn’t work out any plan in which I humoured Julien, completed my night’s work and was in a fit state to give tomorrow’s press briefing. My chest constricted at my lack of control, but still I couldn’t deny him.

He threw himself down on my sofa as though he no longer had enough mental strength to stand. I sat down next to him, careful to respect his personal space, certain not to let my body touch his, however much it longed to do so.

“So what brings you to my room at 3 in the morning? Not that this exact scenario hasn’t always featured in my dreams.”

For a split second, Julien threw me that half-amused, half-exasperated glance that that sort of remark always provoked. But his expression quickly collapsed into the broken horror I’d become all too familiar with.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s not like I have important news or anything new to say. But I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about her, and it’s killing me. I just need to talk, need to speak my memories outloud, or I think I might break in two.”

I sunk into the sofa, so soft after the stiff practicality of the office chair. I wanted never to have to stand back up again. I wanted to pull Julien into my arms and hold him until the sadness faded away. With anyone else, I’d have taken my chances. Almost everyone would have fallen for my charms and let me comfort then. Because with anyone else, deep down, I wouldn’t have cared a jot about their suffering or their reaction to me. People speculated about the secrets of my romantic success. My looks, my power and my charm certainly didn’t hurt. But the real secret was that I knew I was better than them, and made them see it too, left them flattered to be deemed worthy of my attention. Sadly, it wasn’t an approach that translated well to dealing with someone I loved and revered.

Instead, I dug my nails into my palm and forced myself to my feet. “Whisky?”

Julien nodded, inevitably. I probably shouldn’t let him drink in this state, but a glass or two couldn’t hurt, and would surely help to smooth the situation over.

I kept my drinks cabinet well stocked with eye-wateringly expensive and impressively rare single malts, and little else. I hated the peaty taste and the way it burned my throat. Give me a gin and tonic any day. But I liked to keep Julien happy.

He downed the first glass within seconds, and I refilled it more efficiently than any butler.

“Drink this one slowly. Savour it. And then tell me your stories.”

Julien obeyed. “I was thinking about the first time I saw her. That speech she gave about benevolent dictatorships. I listened to her words with this amazing sense of having finally found someone who got it. Who got me. Who I could share my dreams with.”

“You could always share your dreams with me.”

He smiled through the sadness. “But we could hardly rule together, could we? And then I remembered our wedding. All of the spectacle was nothing compared to some of the events we’ve hosted since, but it was so perfect. Me and her, making our love public.”

“That was a beautiful day,” I replied, dutifully. I’d managed to enjoy seeing him so happy and splendid, and pushed any unseemly jealousy deep down within me.

He gripped the whisky tumbler more tightly. “But the memory I keep coming back to was the day we made the country free. She was so damn brave. That bastard MP tried to hold her hostage, and she refused to let her safety jeopardise our chances of success. She made me shoot him while he held her like a human shield. I’ve never been so scared in my life.

“I keep wondering whether she was that scared when the Treaty came for her. And whether she was that defiant. I bet they’d have liked to take her alive, use her as bait or bargaining chip, but I know there’s no way she’d have let that happen. I wish she’d been less brave. If she’d played dead or thrown herself on their mercy, I’d have done whatever it took to get her back. Couldn’t she see that? Couldn’t she see that she meant more to me than this fucking Regime?”

I looked at his tear-stained face and shaking hands, and my heart constricted. Why did you have to let them kill you, you stupid cow? Your carelessness, your lack of regard for your own life, it’s broken him. I knew the sentiment was unfair, but that didn’t make it any less heartfelt.

Julien took an audible breath and composed himself before my eyes. We shared the same ability to put an almost magically brave face on things, to hide our emotions behind a wall of perfect composure.

“I should go. It’s cruel of me to keep you up, to put all of this on you. But just saying some of those things helps more than you could ever know.”

“You never need to apologise to me. You never need to leave.”

“You’re exactly wrong. I never need to apologise to anyone else. One of the major perks of being First Lord. But the point at which I don’t treat you with the respect you deserve is the point I know everything’s truly, irrevocably gone wrong.”

His words send a thrill through me, but not enough of one to overcome the ever-mounting fatigue.

“God, Peter, look at the state of you. You need to rest. We won’t last if you burn yourself out. I’ve got this, I swear. Just relax, just for a moment.”

Against all my better judgement, I lay my head back against the arm of the Chesterfield sofa. Toying with me or caring for me? I never knew how to react when Julien treated me like this. The imaginary images flashed through my mind, for the billionth time. I take his hand, pull him toward me. We kiss, and he’s pressed against me…

No. I will not be this person. I will not sully our friendship with this unworkable fantasy. We’ll talk for a little longer. I’ll finish my work. I’ll rest. In the morning, I’ll present a perfect speech to the press corps, and then I’ll track down one of the secretaries and have my wicked way. Stick a plaster over the gaping hole in my heart.

“Just rest,” Julien says again.

His voice sounds like it’s coming from miles away. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. The only way to combat extreme tiredness is zero tolerance. Relax for even a moment, and your guard is broken.

“Please be happy,” I whisper. “You know she wouldn’t want you to suffer. I don’t want you to suffer.” And then the utterly needed and fervently resisted sleep takes me.

***

When I forced my eyes back open, Julien was gone and light streamed in from the bay window overlooking Fountain Court. I sat up, still drowsy and dazed, but free of the bone-crushing, physical exhaustion that had plagued me for weeks. For a moment, I revelled in the sensation of being rested and think about ordering an omelette, a coffee and a massage, then I glanced at my watch and snapped back to reality. 11am. No wonder I feel refreshed. I’ve slept for hours. I’ve missed the press conference. Julien’s speech remains resolutely unwritten.

I flung open the door to the outer office. The guard stepped smartly aside, and the gathered press corp jumped to their feet.

“What the fuck is wrong with you all?” I demand. “Why the hell did no one wake me?”

The secretaries and journalists and spies glanced at either other, every man and woman hoping someone else would be the one who dares to answer. Then the guard turned to me and saluted. “First Lord’s orders, sir. Our great leader made quite clear what would happen to anyone who prevented you from resting.”

“We’ve got everything under control, sir” Claire, one of the senior press officers, added. “This morning’s briefing went smoothly. I don’t have quite your flair, but I can keep the curious hordes under control.”

“And I’ve taken the First Lord his speech,” Josh, one of the speechwriters, confirmed. “He seemed content.”

“If I can be so bold, you look a lot better for a rest,” Matthew added. “You should trust the First Lord’s judgement, like we all should.”

“Fine. Claire, send me a summary of the press conference. Josh, send me this bloody speech. Everyone else, don’t disturb me unless it’s critical. I’ll take the First Lord’s advice. I’ll take the day off. And tomorrow, I’ll be right back into the fray. Don’t make me regret this.”

The whole room bowed. I soaked up the awe and respect. It’s like a drug.

***

I’m not someone who switches off easily, but I forced my mind away from worries about the Regime. I lounged in the rooftop spa, wandered the grounds, then retired to my own room.

I trod a middle-ground between the lure of the latest novels and the demands of work and scoured the internet for signs of sedition. It’s a task I usually leave to my subordinates, but there’s something enjoyable about it, all those rebels and malcontents, thinking they are so clever, so free to complain.

A knock at the door. Never a moment’s peace. But this is my private room, not my office. It’s rare for me to be disturbed here. Then again, it’s rare for me to spend much time here.

I open the door and see Matthew. “Business or pleasure,” I drawl. Now I’ve regained some strength and perspective, a liaison might be fun. But one look at his drawn face tells me sex is the last thing on his mind.

“There’s a defector from the Treaty in the dungeons,” Matthew stutters, his usual confident tones shot through with panic. “He claims he’s willing to spill secrets, but only to you.”

“Matthew, darling, I thought I made quite clear that other people are dealing with problems today. Send one of my interrogators to him.”

“He really wanted to talk to you. And if the hints he’s given me are halfway true, you’ll want to talk to him.”

“Well, Matthew, I’ll trust your judgement on this one. Give me a few moments to change out of jeans and make myself look terrifying, then I’ll come with you. And make sure I’m properly guarded.”

I despised defectors. Once a traitor, always a traitor, and at least the ones who stuck out life as a rebel had the courage of their convictions. Most of the people who threw themselves on our mercy, offering information for sanctuary, were unspeakably pathetic. Idealistic men and women attracted to the Treaty by the lure of the forbidden, then put off by the harsh reality of life as an outlaw. And they rarely told me anything I didn’t already know.

Still, if I had to speak to scum like that, I could at least give them what they wanted and expected. I considered it a point of pride that of all the senior figures of the Regime, the Treaty despised me the most. Specifically, they despised an overdressed, ultra-camp, Bond villain image of me. So I pulled on a white linen suit, modelled on the sort of thing an Edwardian colonial administrator would have worn, gelled back my chin-length hair and poured myself a gin and tonic in a crystal tumbler, then sauntered out into the corridor.

Matthew stared, wide-eyed with longing. The ridiculous image I cultivated – my natural flamboyance dialled up to eleven – fascinated my admirers and supporters just as much as it disgusted my enemies and detractors.

I flirted outrageously all the way to the dungeons, while my mind ran over the possibilities. Could the prisoner really have anything of use to tell me?

The guards at the entrance to the dungeons and the interrogators in the prisoner’s cell all bowed low.

The defector, a non-descript man in his mid-twenties, was handcuffed to a steel chair.

“Untie him, then clear the room,” I ordered. “Wait outside and stay on guard.”

Matt hesitated by the doorway. “You can stay,” I confirmed. “Take a note.”

I slung myself onto a chair facing the prisoner. “You asked for me, I came. This had better be worth my time. I assume I need no introduction, but sadly I can’t say the same for you.”

The man stared at me as though I came from another planet. Finally, he managed to speak. “My name’s Kurt. I used to be a waiter here.”

“Charmed, I’m sure. So you relied on our goodwill, and then you sold us out?”

Kurt looked at the floor. “I’m sorry; I made a terrible mistake. But the point is, most of the Treaty only know the First Lord and Lady from overblown posters or from speeches at a distance. I’ve seen then close to, day after day. I’d recognise them anywhere.”

“That’s marvellous for you, Kurt,” I replied, smoothing my hair back and taking a sip of my gin. “Is there a point to this delightful memory?”

Kurt shivered and took an audible breath. I stood up and crossed the floor to him, noting how he flinched back at my approach. I wondered idly what they said about me in the Treaty camps. I never personally tortured anyone – I felt it was beneath me – but perhaps they didn’t appreciate that subtlety. I handed him my gin. “Drink. Steady your nerves.”

Heedless of any risk of poison, he did as I suggested.

“Well, Kurt, my dearest, what is it you want to tell me.”

He swigged the drink again. “The Eternal Blessed First Lady isn’t dead. She’s living at Treaty headquarters. And not as a prisoner either.”

I laughed. “Of all the things I expected you to say, that was rather low down the list. Do you have any proof of this wild accusation?”

He nodded. “Of course. I’d hardly expect you to take it on trust. There’s a DVD on the table. The guards took it from me, but I persuaded them to get you first and watch it later.”

Matthew walked to the table without needing me to ask. He picked up the promised recording and took it to a computer in the corner, hooked up to a projector. We kept laptops down here for just this purpose, disconnected from the rest of the building’s intranet, to reduce the risk from viruses and Treaty hackers.

Matthew fiddled with the device for a moment. Images appeared on the wall, and I inadvertently clasped my hand to my mouth.

The slimy bastard who ran the Treaty was instantly recognisable from all his smartarse broadcasts, but I knew enough about his activities. The surprise was the woman by his side. Hair cropped in that ugly Treaty style, as though beauty would be a betrayal of the cause, body shrouded in military wear, and face bruised and filthy. No casual observer would connect her with the vision of majesty that was Marianne on the posters and at the staged events, but for someone who’d seen her every day between the coup and her supposed death, the resemblance was unmistakable.

The images came thick and fast as Matthew scrolled through. With each shot, I grew more certain. That was Marianne, the First Lady. She brandished a gun. She posed with the Treaty’s so-called officers. She stood with her arm tenderly around the waist of the sick fuck who’d bombed Somerset House, who hated everything we stood for.

I gripped the table for support, scared I might actually be sick. How had this happened? This was the First Lady, for God’s sake, the one other person Jules trusted absolutely. The one person I’d been sure would never betray the Regime. She’d tried to crush the Treaty through force and through the new constitution. She’d had prisoners tortured so mercilessly that even I’d felt nervous. She’d argued for a bombing raid when even Julien had counselled against it.

Had it all been an act? Surely not. I’d seen the look in her eyes whenever they alighted on her husband. It echoed the love in my own, until I felt no jealousy, only joy that he had found someone who loved him as much as I did whom he could love in return. I’d mourned as much as anyone at her funeral.

“What the fuck is this?” I managed.

“She calls herself Melanie Bonham. Claims she’s the wife of an army officer. The leadership were sceptical at first, but she warned them about the bombing raids, and they grew to trust her. David, our leader, took a liking to her. No one seems to have made the connection. But I couldn’t miss it.”

I thought of Julien’s broken expression, the way news of his wife’s death had crushed him and continued to hold him in its grip. How could the bitch do that to him? How could she betray him and let him believe her to be dead? I’d have done anything for a hint of the love he showed her, and she’d thrown it back in his face. My throat constricted.

“Does anyone else know about this?” I managed to choke out.

Kurt shook his head. “I thought you’d be the best person to tell.”

“You did the right thing.”

“What are you going to do, sir?” Matt asked, pale with shock. “The First Lord isn’t going to like this.”

I folded my arms. “The First Lord is not going to hear about this.”

I imagined trying to tell him. Believing his wife to be dead was one thing. Knowing her to be alive and a traitor was quite another. The former had cut him to the core. If someone let the latter slip, he might try something stupid.

I took the DVD from the computer and snapped it in two.

Kurt stared at me. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this information valuable? Aren’t you going to act on it?

I reached into the inside pocket of my elegantly tailored linen suit and drew out my revolver. Julien always mocked my shooting prowess, clumsy next to his brilliance, but he’d drilled the techniques into me until I was competent.

With fumbling fingers, I pointed at Kurt and fired. I hit his chest, not his head, and it took three painstaking shots to make him stay down.

Then I turned to Matthew, who’d watched the execution with fascination, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was the next on the list.

When I turned the gun towards him, he started to cry. “Sir, please. There’s no need. I’m utterly loyal to you, even before my obedience to the First Lord. I love you. If you want this secret keeping, I’ll keep it.”

I closed the distance between us, and cradled his chin with my free hand. “I know, sweet Matthew, I know. I wish I’d sent you out of the room. But I didn’t, and you saw and heard his story.  I more or less believe you’d never tell the First Lord if I ordered you not to, but I can’t take the risk that I’m mistaken. I can’t let you or anyone else break him.”

I kissed his tear-stained cheek, reflected for a moment on the pleasant memory of our night together, then fired at point-blank range.

By the time I snapped back to reality, the room was full of guards. If I were anyone else, they’d be wrestling me to the floor. Instead, they were fussing over my safety. Everyone accepted that, short of physically harming the First Lord, I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. The fact I’d shot a Treaty defector in cold blood needed no explanation. Their eyes queried why I’d also killed my secretary, but their mouths stayed silent.

“Burn the Treaty bastard’s body,” I ordered. “Inform Matthew’s family that he died a martyr, killed by this traitor while trying to defend me. Have someone in events arrange a hero’s funeral. And don’t trouble the First Lord with any of this. He has enough to worry about.”

With that, I strode out as they bowed. My head spun with thoughts about Marianne. Captured and turned? Captured, imprisoned, and trying to gain their trust so she could escape? Planning this all along? Should we be looking to rescue her? Assassinate her? Imprison her? As long as Julien never found out, I didn’t much care. All I cared about was making him happy again.

So far, I’d tiptoed around the problem, respecting his thoughts of his wife, his need to mourn, his faithfulness to her memory. He didn’t need to know his love was built on a lie, but now I did, I could change tack.

He needed a woman to take his mind off her. I’d subtly raised the suggestion in the past and been shouted down for my troubles, but now, I was free to push harder. If he was going to crack, it’d take someone who reminded him of his wife. Flicking through my memories of eligible girls of the court, I remembered just the person.

I rushed to my room, tore off my bloodstained suit and slipped into a silk-dressing gown.

“Get me Major Livelton on the phone,” I demanded, calling down to another of the secretaries, who hopefully hadn’t yet had time to hear about poor, unfortunate Matt.

The phone started ringing within seconds. My officials were always eager to please, but it was heartening that a senior army figure understood his position relative to mine.

“My dear Livelton, I so enjoyed your party at Easter. And if there’s one thing that stands out for me, it’s the beauty of your little Olivia. I need you to bring her to court. Our illustrious leader is going to need a new wife, sooner rather than later, and your daughter might just fit the bill. I’m sure I don’t need to highlight just what this could do for your career and your status. I’m sure both you and she will consider pleasing the First Lord to be your patriotic duty.”

“My Olivia? Really Peter, where has this idea come from?”

I softened my commanding tone. “It won’t be a patriotic duty carried out in fear or through clenched teeth, Charles, I promise you that. He’s handsome. He’s charming. And on a one-to-one basis, he’s as sweet and kind as he is domineering and awe-inspiring in public. If I had a sister who was of age, I’d try to make him choose her, but Jane’s only twelve. Consider this an honour and a joy, not an imposition.”

“Sir, I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything. Come to court, bring Olivia, and we can discuss the details there. Maybe he’ll turn her down. But I think she stands a fighting chance.”

He made a mumble of assent, and I hung up the phone, satisfied. If Julien couldn’t be persuaded, I’d play with the lovely Olivia myself. She looked enough like a younger Marianne that it would no doubt be quite the experience. The real one, after all, had been one of the few attractive women I’d stopped myself from making a move on, out of respect for Julien. More than once, I’d wondered what it would feel like to seduce her, to take the one woman Julien truly loved. If I ever saw her again, I’d need to have no such qualms, but right now, the thought of touching such a treacherous creature sickened me.

I turned my mind away from both lust and intrigue, and slipped my glasses back on. The piles of paperwork still towered over the desk, and if there was one thing today had taught me, it was that I couldn’t risk taking my eyes of the ball for a moment.