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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

PitchWars – Pimp my Bio

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So, here’s my #PitchWars bio. For those who’ve come across this as a fellow contestant, best of luck. For those who have come across this by accident and don’t know what PitchWars is, here’s some background info: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-wars/. And for any mentors looking at this, all I can say is “Pick me! Pick me!”

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My name is Georgiana – it’s  pronounced George-gee-ah-na  – and not, as many people seem to think, pronounced the same as Georgina, only in a posher accent. Leave my fancy extra “A” out of my name at your peril!

As you can probably tell from this (now rather under-used) website and blog, I wrote and self-published The Cavaliers, a trilogy of vampire novels set at Oxford University. I’ve since written two other, quite different novels, which I’m aiming to publish conventionally.Firstly, The Dictator’s Wife, an adult romantic thriller about a military coup in the UK. Secondly, my actual PitchWars entry, My Love is Vengeance, a YA fantasy about a sixteen-year-old girl seeking revenge on the feudal lord who killed her brother while trying not to fall for his charms or give in to her dark side.

I’m British, and originally from Yorkshire. For those who don’t really know British geography, think Winterfell. I used to sound like a Stark bannerman. My Sean Bean-esque accent has faded over the years – it comes out when I get stressed or over-excited though. Part of my Yorkshire heritage is being a massive Sheffield Wednesday fan. (For those who don’t know that’s a football or *shudder* “soccer” team).

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I studied history at Oxford University – I still adore everything historical, particularly the three Rs: Renaissance, Restoration and Regency. Afterwards, I converted to Law and now live in London with my husband, Freddie. If I’m a Stark, he’s definitely a Lannister, and his accent makes him sounds like a stereotypical British villain. He has other awesome qualities, but I think deep down, that’s probably what attracted me to him 😉

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We both work for the UK Government. This has not made for a relaxing last few months. Still, getting to pose outside Ten Downing Street sort of makes up for it.

no ten

I love any type of story that takes me away from the here and now: futuristic, historical, fantasy or simply weird, dramatic things happening in a contemporary setting. I’m generally less of a fan of stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things in the present day, though I’ll make an exception for anything that includes unconventional narratives, unreliable narrators or tricksy, experimental story-telling.

I am an unashamed lover of alluring villains and villainous (or at least seriously morally ambiguous) protagonists. That’s Gone Girl-style ladies and Darkling-style gentlemen. I particularly enjoy tales that feature sinister characters as possible love interests. And to be clear, that’s villains, not bad boys. I have zero interest in muscly, drug-taking hardmen who take a ‘treat em mean, keep em keen’ attitude to their love interests, but I can’t resist those hell bent on world domination.

Other things I love are posh characters (and classes colliding), well-executed twists, complicated plots with lots of hidden clues, elaborate world-building I can obsess over, elaborate plans, and doomed or forbidden romances. Some of my favourites include:

YA Fantasy and Paranormal

  • The Grisha Trilogy
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses (though I couldn’t get into a Throne of Glass for some reason – I keep thinking I ought to give it another go)
  • This Savage Song (and other VE Schwab books)
  • The Young Elites
  • The Red Queen
  • Everything by LJ Smith – they are a bit dated now, but basically defined my mid-teens and I still feel no one does sexy villain quite so well

Adult fantasy

  • Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire (love, love, love the books and the TV show. My husband introduced me to the books years ago, and geeking out about them is a core component of our marriage!)
  • The Kingkiller Chronices
  • Prince of Thorns – which pushes my ability to root for the villain to its absolute limit
  • American Gods

More realistic and/or literary books

  • Gone Girl
  • Cloud Atlas – and basically everything by David Mitchell
  • Prep – and basically everything by Curtis Sittenfeld apart from her latest one, Eligible, which was fun but forgettable
  • Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

I fanatically review every book I read, so you can get more of a feel for what I enjoy on my Amazon review page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A1M4SYONBR2PXM?  or on Goodreads.

I spend far more time reading than I do watching TV and films, but I do have a few recent favourites: Outlander (enjoyed the books too, but prefer the adaptation), Lord of the Rings (likewise), House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire.  I also think I might be the only person in the world who genuinely enjoyed Jupiter Ascending – mostly thanks to Eddie Redmayne’s space villain’s eyeliner and shouty voice, and this review. http://www.themarysue.com/review-jupiter-ascending-the-worst/

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The Dictator’s Wife and My Love is Vengeance

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I’ve just produced my PitchWars Pimp My Bio entry and it’s made me realise that most of the info on this blog barely mentions my two newer, non-Cavaliers manuscripts, and where it does, some of the titles and descriptions are quite out of date. So to cut through any confusion, I thought I’d put both of their queries and opening few paragraphs in one place.

MY LOVE IS VENGEANCE (aka. The Vengeful Vizieress, aka. The Separation of Powers)

Sixteen-year-old Tara Moran comes from a family of Advisors, the right-hand men and women of the aristocrats who govern their world. Tara’s psychic bond with her twin, Gene, allows them to combine his strength with her intelligence – until Gene dies in a duel with the ambitious young Duke Longville.

Vowing revenge, Tara becomes Duke Longville’s Advisor, intending to manipulate him and provoke a popular uprising that will lead to his death. 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 are meant to possess.

Destroying the Duke she’s sworn to serve would see her cast out of the Advisors, penniless and a shame to her remaining family. Forgiving him – or worse, giving into his declarations of love – would be a betrayal of her dead twin and the solemn oath she made at his grave.

Tara treads an uneasy path, her love for Longville increasing at the same time as her schemes against him escalate and her sense of right and wrong blurs. Tara must decide which is more important: the bond she had with her brother or the one she has with the man responsible for his death – before she becomes a villain that neither of them would want to know.

THE VENGEFUL VIZIERESS is a 87 000 word YA fantasy. 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.  The world merges aspects of dark ages and seventeenth century England with modern political structures.

My history degree from Oxford University, my career working for the British Government and my love of fantasy novels and dark heroines have all come together to inspire this book.

Chapter One

The point of Gene’s blade lunged towards me. I staggered backwards, out of his reach, barely able to keep my balance on my spindly legs.

“Defend yourself!” Gene threw the whole force of his body in my direction. “For heaven’s sake, Tara. You need to repel me.”

“I’m trying,” I replied, darting to the side and forcing my sword up to meet his, while my heart shook like a ship on a storm-tossed sea. My waist-length hair swept from side to side, slowing my movement and threatening to break out of the green ribbon that restrained it.

Gene’s sword collided with mine and the impact reverberated through my bones. I tensed my stomach, held my breath and pushed back with all the strength I possessed, but he stood his ground and forced me to the floor.

“We could always do this the easy way.” Gene’s mental voice echoed in my mind.

No mind-melding. No possession. I’ll try harder,” I snapped back through our connection.

The tip of his blade touched my throat. I threw my sword to the floor. “I surrender. Gods help me, Gene, I surrender. Can’t you go easy on me, just for once?” My voice shook in sync with my muscles.

Gene raised one dark eyebrow. He withdrew his weapon, took my arm and helped me to my feet.

“Go easy? Why? Because you’re a woman? Because you’re my twin sister? The examiners won’t go easy on you. Neither will the scions of the Great Advisor Families. And the peers will exploit any hint of weakness. They all want to prove that we’re nobodies.”

“How about you go easy on me because I’m hopeless? You’ve had sixteen years to teach me to duel.” I rubbed my trembling sword arm. “I’m useless, you’re brilliant. It’s a fact of life. Just like the way I’m a thousand times better than you when it comes to rhetoric and poetry.”

Gene handed me a glass of water. I downed it in the sort of unladylike manner that would have earned me a lecture from my mother, spilling half of it over my chin in the process.

“We might have been born advisors, but you know as well as I do that birthright counts for nothing until we pass the Examination.” Gene crossed his arms. “York Place believes in merit and in good all-rounders. There’s nothing more pitiful than those who have the blood but lack the qualifications.”

I scowled at my twin, but I scooped my sword back up in my aching arms. “Fine. Give me the best you’ve got.”

Gene smirked. “My best would kill you. But I’ll give you enough. Raise your elbow. How many times do I have to tell you?”

I forced my elbow up, my sword behind it, concerned that my skinny wrist might snap in two.

THE DICTATOR’S WIFE (aka. Checks and Balances, and more lightheartedly known as Cuddles and Coups or The Price of my Love)

THE DICTATOR’S WIFE is an 81 000 word adult dark romantic thriller. It’s the story of an oppressive regime told from the perspective of the rulers, not the rebels.

Marianne Helmsley always believed that democracy was overrated. In 2022, Marianne and Julien, her charming but ruthless husband, led a military coup against the British Government and ruled as the autocratic First Lord and Lady. But then the resistance murdered Marianne – or so everyone believes. In reality, following a heated disagreement with her husband, Marianne faked her death and fled in disguise to the rebel group known as the Treaty.

Five years later, the leader of the Treaty needs a volunteer to infiltrate the Regime and assassinate the First Lord. Marianne – by now utterly trusted by the rebels, who have no idea of her true identity – decides it’s time to return home and atone for her sins. Trying and failing in her mission would mean torture, death, and vicious retaliation against the rebels, but success would restore democracy.

The Treaty expect their assassin will have to sneak into the Regime stronghold as a stranger. Instead, Marianne makes a triumphant return as the long-lost First Lady, claiming the rebels have held her prisoner for years. The First Lord welcomes her back with open arms and rights and wrongs no longer seem as clear cut as they did in the Treaty camps. Still in love with the man she’s meant to kill and reminded of the joys of absolute power, Marianne must choose between freeing the country and breaking her heart or ruling at Julien’s side and losing her soul – before both sides seek to execute her as a traitor.

Chapter One

I became a triple-agent on the eighth anniversary of Britain’s military coup.

That morning, I stepped out of the lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together.

I pushed through the ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in combat trousers and canvas jackets until I reached our leader.

“Good of you to finally join us, Melanie.” Without another word, David set our hacked CCTV feed to show Somerset House.

I stared at the images that appeared on the huge screen behind David. The elegant arches and columns of the Regime’s London headquarters formed a stark contrast to this utilitarian network of abandoned mines that we’d repurposed as a hidden centre of operations.

I dutifully studied the armed soldiers guarding the archway and the helicopters hovering above the courtyard, but 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 in a huge font.

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.

“The Regime bombed Derby last week for supporting our cause. Yesterday, they wiped out an entire platoon. We need to stop the First Lord once and for all.” Years of outdoor living had given David the pronounced muscles and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. When he spoke, people listened.

I ignored him.

My eyes lingered on the second portrait until its features blurred. Until I was content the so-called Eternal Blessed First Lady’s curves, red lips and Dior gown bore no resemblance to my soldier’s body and weather-beaten face. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery. Besides, the dictator’s wife had been famous for her Rapunzel curls, and I’d cropped my hair to the skull five years ago when I’d fled to the Treaty.

I’d broken my nose to change the contours of my face. I’d tanned my pale, English rose skin and covered my blue eyes with brown contact lenses. I’d readapted the Birmingham accent I’d previously tried so hard to replace with cut-glass tones.

No one had recognized me before. No one would recognize me now. If there was one thing both sides agreed on, it was that the dictator’s wife was dead.

 

Checks and Balances – First Chapter of my new novel

For a while now, when I’ve managed to post at all, I’ve been hinting about the new novel I’ve been working on, Checks and Balances. It’s rather different from the Cavaliers, being a very British thriller, with dystopian elements. It’s also finally finished. I could go on all day about my inspirations and the plot and characters, and how much I’ve enjoyed writing it, but instead, I’m going to jump straight in, and provide the first chapter. Enjoy!

Comments are very welcome, as are beta reading volunteers.

The Peak District, Year Eight of the First Lord and Eternal Blessed First Lady’s Glorious Regime. June.

I stepped out of the rickety lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together. What desperate plan or restrictive new decree did he intend to announce today?

David stood under the screen that showed our hacked CCTV camera feeds. Years of outdoor living and physical labour had given him the muscular tone and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. I pushed through the massed ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in hardy, unflattering outfits, and took my exalted position directly opposite our leader.

Michaela leaned against the reinforced metallic wall of the abandoned mine, shivering in the English summer chill. Her wavy obsidian-black hair had grown out of the practical cropped style we all sported, and into an elegant bob. She’d swapped her usual guerrilla uniform for a vintage silk gown someone had decided would pass muster in London. The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues.

I glanced from her to David. “What’s going on? I haven’t seen Michaela in weeks, and now she’s glammed up like the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s Army. Are we punishing her for flouting your arbitrary rules, or is the new style your doing?”

David crossed his arms. “I’m sending Michaela to Somerset House. She’s going to find her way into the First Lord’s presence. She’s going to charm him and allow herself to be seduced. She’s going to gain his trust and steal his secrets. And when the time is right, she’s going to kill him.”

His unblinking eyes and fixed mouth dared me to defy him in front of his supporters. He should have known I could never resist a challenge.

I bunched my fists. “That’s insane. The First Lord has his pick of the girls in the capital. Even if he did choose Michaela, she’d be a moment’s entertainment to him, not a military confidante, and she wouldn’t get within a mile of him with a weapon. Worse, there’s a chance that far from seducing him, she’ll be seduced and used against us. Julien can be very charming, very persuasive.”

“I am a loyal servant of the Treaty,” Michaela snapped. “I’ve been a member since it was founded, since I was a young girl. My father gave his life to kill the First Lord’s wife. The Treaty brought me up. I didn’t walk in off the street with no history like you.”

I thought of the tiny, shy, twelve-year-old I’d met when I’d first thrown myself on the Treaty’s mercy, five long years ago. I struggled to reconcile her with this beautiful, arrogant, seventeen-year-old ingénue.

I grabbed Michaela by her billowing, ribboned sleeves. “I didn’t ‘walk in off the street’, Michaela. I left behind my life as the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s army, because I believed in the cause. It’s easy to be loyal when you’ve known nothing else, when you owe the Treaty everything. I made sacrifices to serve.”

I’d told the lie so often my mind instantly conjured a clear image of Oliver Bonham, the senior army officer who’d never existed. It amazed me that all of them, even David, had bought my story when I’d turned up at their camp and continued to believe it.

David grabbed hold of me from behind and broke my grip on Michaela’s arms. I trained every day, but my strength was still no match for his.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Melanie. The Regime bombed both Derby and Hull this month for their sympathy to our cause. The army wiped out an entire platoon last week. There’ve been too many deaths, too many prisoners. Everything you say may be true, but we need to use every weapon at our disposal. We need to find out where the Regime plans to strike next, and we need to stop the First Lord once and for all.”

“You’d know, I suppose. You and your PhD in politics.”

David claimed to be a working class hero, but he’d spent longer at Oxford than I had, and came from a much wealthier background. Token student protests about global warming and globalisation had mutated into something more extreme once the First Lord and Lady came to power. In a different world, he’d have become a professor and written the occasional scathing article for the New Statesman. Instead, he shot down helicopters and interrogated captured soldiers. As did I.

He released me, without rising to the bait, and turned to the computer’s controls. The Regime strictly controlled internet access, but the Treaty attracted plenty of support from the technological fringes of society. They’d managed to set up a functioning computer network underground, and enabled us not only to use the internet freely, but to view most security cameras at will. Luckily for us, with Government focussed on war and the borders closed, British technology had barely progressed over the last decade, making our hackers’ jobs far easier than they’d be in more progressive societies. .

David set the feed to show Somerset House from the Strand. Its elegant arches and columns formed a stark contrast to the grey, utilitarian network of abandoned mines and tunnelled caves where I spent my nights after long days of raids on nearby towns, manning anti-aircraft posts and watching for Regime troops.

I tried not to torture myself with sights from my old life, but Somerset House’s beauty wasn’t what David wanted us to reflect on. He wanted us to see the heavily armed soldiers guarding the gate and pacing the street. The helicopters hovering above. The giant banner with the First Lord’s winged unicorn insignia hanging above the archway, and the two even larger portraits that fanned down either side. Honour the First Lord demanded the one on the left, above an image of a striking man in replica nineteenth century military uniform. Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion on the right-hand side. The woman in that painting appeared as studiedly fragile and innocent as Marie-Antoinette’s idea of a shepherdess, despite the Treaty regarding her as having been a psychotic she-devil.

They were symbols of the Regime’s power and illustrations of why we fought. And in the case of the painfully rococo portrait of the Treaty’s most high-profile victim, a reminder of what the organisation could accomplish. All designed to make me agree that Michaela should take her chances.

“Let me go instead.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I thought through the implications of what I was saying, before I considered the madness of it. It could be my chance, at last, but equally, it could be suicide.

Everyone stared, trying to find the nicest way to raise the obvious objection.

“Look at yourself,” Michaela spat, after the silence had gone on too long. “Don’t you realise you’re old? They say you were beautiful once, but you couldn’t seduce secrets out of a minor official anymore, never mind the First Lord.”

Her words stung, but I fought hard to keep any signs of hurt off my face. In my old, privileged life, I’d had every hope and expectation of still radiating youth and beauty at thirty-five. Few things hold back the clock like wealth and power. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in abandoned mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery.

David gave Michaela one of his patented “gentle looks”: an innocuous sideways glance, a half-smile. From anyone else, it would have been utterly unremarkable, but it shocked her into a guilty silence more effectively than a lesser man’s glare or shouted reprimand. The leader of the resistance could communicate a hell of a lot with just his eyes. He shared the trait with his greatest enemy.

David put a muscular arm round my waist, and I managed not to flinch. I’d almost grown used to his touch over the years. He’d never dream of forcing himself on a woman, and as far as he knew, I enjoyed our embraces every bit as much as he did. In reality, I slept with him because I needed security, I needed status, and I needed secrets. Plenty of women, both those who fought for the Treaty and those loyal to the Regime with overactive imaginations, found his cropped blond hair, bright eyes, and sculpted figure to be attractive, but I kept my heart safely out of proceedings. There was only one man I’d ever loved. Only one man I ever would love.

“Melanie, you’re still beautiful. But the evidence shows that, like all powerful men throughout history, Julien takes mistresses in their late teens and early twenties.”

I put my hands to my head and tried to push away the awful mental images his words created. How many mistresses had there been? How young and how beautiful?

“Precisely. Michaela would be one in a long line. I could provide something different. We’re the same age, I believe, the First Lord and I. I can offer shared memories and experiences. I can wave my ex-husband’s name around and claim the Treaty have held me prisoner for all this time. If I pretend to feed him information, perhaps I can get some in return. I believe Michaela when she says she’s committed, but you must have heard the stories. No seventeen year old can be relied upon to stand against his charm, his beauty, the glow in his eyes, the way he contemplates people like he can see into their soul and makes them feel like they’re the only person in the room.”

No seventeen year old could resist the insistent touch of his hands. The arms that make you feel protected against any dangers. The kisses that make you lose all control.

“And you think you’re immune, do you? Far beyond that sort of childish infatuation at the grand old age of thirty-five?”

Now it was my turn to get “the look”, but I’d developed some immunity to that, too. I made determined eye contact, refusing to glance away as his blue eyes burned into mine.

“I think I’ve developed a little cynicism. I think I’ve come to understand the games people play at court. I think I’ve stopped believing in love. I’m quite confident I can stand before Julien St John Helmsley without falling to my knees in paroxysms of lust and adoration.”

I’d never been less confident of anything in my life.

“Perhaps you’re scared, David.” The others had wisely stayed quiet so far, but now Christopher, David’s de facto second-in-command in spite of his youth, stepped into the fray. He looked like a taller and more muscular version of Michaela, with his silky black hair and the huge, dark eyes that made him appear disconcertingly sweet. “You’ll send my sister because the end justifies the means, but you can’t bear the thought of your woman in the First Lord’s bed.”

Christopher chose his words well. David would never willingly admit to traditional attitudes like jealousy or having a woman who was “his”. Furthermore, he prided himself on always putting the Treaty and the ultimate goal of overthrowing the First Lord and freeing the country over every consideration. He’d always claimed he would give his life. The least he could do was give my virtue.

David punched the rickety lift doors. “Of course I can’t bear the thought of her in that bastard’s bed. I can’t bear the thought of any woman suffering that fate. I can’t bear the thought of the man who destroyed Nottingham, blockaded the north, and took away the country’s most basic rights touching anyone or experiencing any earthly pleasure. I can’t bear the thought he’s still alive, still ruling us all, after so many good men have died. I can’t bear the thought of him, full stop.”

David’s attitude was hardly unusual in our circles. People generally didn’t risk their life by joining the Treaty unless they despised and disapproved of the First Lord and his Regime. But for most of my fellow rebels, Julien functioned as an abstract symbol of everything they believed had gone wrong with the country. David hated him in an oddly personal way.

I touched David’s arm. He spun towards me and raised his hand. For a second, I held my breath and braced myself, but he dropped his arm and regained composure. I allowed myself to breathe again, thankful not to face the same fate as the door. For all my grandstanding, I’d never coped well with physical pain.

“We all feel that way,” I soothed. “And that’s why we have to do this, and we have to do it right. How exactly do you expect Michaela to get herself admitted into his presence? She might wander the capital for weeks and never find an opening. But as the returning wife of a war hero, I’m sure I could approach some colonel or other and beg an audience.”

David bowed his head. I had no wish to know what thoughts of old atrocities were running through his mind. The screams as Regime bombers turned Nottingham into a wasteland. Paul, the Treaty’s first martyr, tortured to death. Treaty Members and suspected Treaty affiliates rounded up and imprisoned or worse.

“You’ll both go,” he snapped. “Claim you’re distant cousins or something. Let the great ruler decide whether he prefers youth or experience. Just make him fall for one or both of you, make him talk, and then destroy him.”

Michaela and I nodded our heads in sync, all thoughts of our early argument put aside. David had spoken, and there was no point in arguing with him when he slipped into this mood.

“You’ll need to go to the infirmary and have them fit you with a hormonal implant,” I said to Michaela, gentler now. I touched the characteristic raised bump on my upper arm. “You’ll never pass as a loyal citizen without one, and we don’t want you carrying the First Lord’s heir.”

Michaela shuddered. The Treaty regarded avoiding the implants as a key sign of resistance. Nonetheless, after a moment’s hesitation, she let herself into the lift. Mercifully, it was still functioning, despite David taking his temper out on it. Presumably, she was heading for the tunnel where we’d developed a makeshift health centre.

Why had I talked myself into this? An unknown, pretty commoner like Michaela could try her hand and would either strike it lucky or return home defeated. And if I were really the imprisoned wife of an army hero, I’d have a pleasant homecoming and some sharp questioning.

But neither of those descriptions applied to me, and I’d face one of two fates. I’d be either shot on sight or welcomed back into the fold like the prodigal son.

I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. No one else would dare to make the decision, so my fate would be entirely in the hands of the First Lord. And while people called him many things, no one ever accused Julien St John Helmsley of being predictable.

***

God knows I possessed no loyalty to the Treaty, but leaving them behind still disconcerted me. I’d often felt trapped, surrounded by so many people, but companionship offered a degree of security. Both Michaela and I knew how to fight and how to survive in the wild, but part of my brain still screamed that horrible fates awaited women who wandered alone in the wilderness.

Michaela carried the glamourous dress she’d modelled in her backpack, and I’d packed a similar relic of my old life. The slightly outdated styles would fit with our claims of imprisonment. For the rigours of the journey, we both wore our usual outfits of cargo pants and tank tops, with a padded jacket over the top. Thanks to the controls the Regime had put in place, we couldn’t take a train without showing ID or travel by road without passing several checkpoints. London was unreachable. Instead, we laboured on foot towards York, where we’d throw ourselves on the mercy of the city garrison controlling the north. I’d introduce myself and seek safe passage to Somerset House and a re-admittance to court. I’d decide what to do with Michaela when we got there.

Freed from the need to impress the senior men of the Treaty, Michaela reverted to the sweet young girl I’d once known. Just like she had years ago, she besieged me with questions about the capital. About the court. About the ruthless men of the army and their glamourous wives. About Julien.

“Do you think he’ll take me as a mistress?” she asked one evening, as we hiked along a rough path under low-hanging trees. The swagger in her voice when she’d discussed the prospect in the camp morphed into a kind of all-consuming fear.

I passed her the hip flask and she took a good swig of the rough moonshine within. I wished it was a single malt, but its fiery taste helped to drive away both the chill and the fear. “Honestly? I don’t know. I was only the wife of a mid-ranking officer, remember? I’m no expert on his whims.”

“They say he’s incapable of love. I hear what the refugees and defectors say. There are many mistresses, but there’s no emotion. He sees the beautiful women as no different to the impregnable palace and the fine wines.”

I glanced at her. Her bloodshot eyes and washed-out face mirrored my internal exhaustion. We’d avoided all but the smallest villages, and these wild expanses sapped our energy. “The last thing you want is for him to love you. You can manipulate lust. Love can destroy everything in its path.”

She nodded. “It’s not true though, is it? The First Lord’s not genuinely incapable of love. The mistresses might be mere playthings, but I’ve seen the posters of his wife on foraging missions in the cities. The Eternal Blessed First Lady. The mistresses don’t get posters. Surely, they show he loved her, before my father killed her to break his spirit.”

I shrugged and resisted the temptation to point out that, far from breaking his spirit, losing his wife just seemed to have pushed Julien over the edge. I always wondered what had become of Christopher and Michaela’s father, Michael, David’s second-in-command before my arrival.

“Posters prove nothing. He just likes to remind people the Treaty killed her. It helps to keep the populace’s mind turned against us.” David would have been proud of my rhetoric.

“Did you know her?”

It was useless. Two days walk from the Treaty encampment and Michaela had already filled her mind with romantic fantasies. If she came before Julien, he wouldn’t even have to turn on the charm. She was already in love with the idea of courtly love and tragic romance.

“The woman on the posters? Waist-length spirals of golden hair, tremulous blue eyes and a pious, innocent gaze? No, I never knew the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”

“But you knew the person behind the pictures?”

Perhaps I’d over-estimated sweet Michaela’s naiveté.

“I met her once or twice, from a distance, at military events. I keep telling you, my husband was just a mid-ranking officer.”

“Halt! Who goes there?”

I cursed as the army patrol stepped out of the trees and onto the path, hemming us in. Normally, I walked with my senses finely attuned to any hint of danger, but I’d allowed myself to become far too absorbed in Michaela’s questions. She’d stirred up old memories until I’d lost all sense of my surroundings. Might they buy the line that I was the wife of a mid-ranking army officer?

The soldiers’ long red coats wouldn’t have looked out of place at Waterloo or Lexington, but they were Kevlar-lined and made to the latest technical standards. The bright colours and elegantly lethal tailoring brought back memories of another time. Once, the sight of the First Lord’s army had meant safety. Once, they’d bowed. Even through my mounting panic, I still struggled to regard them as a true threat.

The short soldier to my left hit Michaela in the stomach with the butt of his rifle and pushed her against the tree as she screamed, and I snapped back to the reality of the situation.

“Who are you and where have you come from?” the short man asked as he fiddled with his belt.

A second solider took a firm grip of my arm, but I seemed to offer less sport than Michaela.

The third solider, this one taller and scrawnier, addressed Michaela. “Respectable women don’t walk on the moors alone. Are you whores of the Treaty?”

When she didn’t answer, he walked over and slapped her face. At least it distracted the first soldier from whatever degradations he’d been planning.

“Is that a no? If you’re not some Treaty slut then bow before our beloved Lord.”

I swivelled my head around in panic, but of course, Julien wasn’t there in person. The third solider reached into his bag and pulled out a framed photograph of the First Lord. Even in a miniature reproduction, at a distance of ten metres, his green eyes seemed to bore into mine. Tremors ran through my body, and my captor tightened his hold.

“Bow before the First Lord,” the soldier repeated, slapping Michaela again while the first solider loosened his grip to allow her space to accede to their request.

Bow, I willed Michaela. Just bow, once, and we might actually make it out of here alive. According to the new constitution, everyone must bow before the First Lord and before images and statues of him, which dominated most parts of the country. But when anyone joined the Treaty, they made a solemn vow never to do so, no matter the provocation. It’s one of our organisation’s defining features, and the rebel leaders had drilled the rule into Michaela since childhood.

You’re on a spy mission. The usual rules don’t apply. You were planning to sleep with the First Lord. Of course you have David’s dispensation to bow to his image to protect our cover. Didn’t he tell you this? Didn’t he explain how you needed to behave?

Michaela shook her head and spat at the image. I flinched, both with the foresight of what this would mean for the two of us, and an old remembered sense of wrongness, an old memory of the first time I’d seen someone defile Julien’s image. I’d known Michaela wasn’t up for the task. She’d fallen at the first hurdle, too thoroughly indoctrinated to make the right choice.

The first soldier punched her in the face, and she slumped forward. Before, they’d been showing off their power and toying with a beautiful woman for their own twisted sense of amusement. Now, though, she’d angered them. It seemed Julien still had some truly loyal minions.

I thought of the gun in my pocket. Though by no means the world’s greatest shot, I was competent. David—and before him, my husband—had long ago made sure of that. If I distracted the guard who had me in his grasp, I could reach it and get one shot off before they overpowered me. The first soldier had his trousers around his ankles. It would be satisfying to shoot him in the face, before he had his sick way with Michaela, but then what? The second I fired, they’d turn their guns on me.

I saw it all. She would talk. She would damn us as Treaty spies. But before that, she would to suffer.

“How about you?” the man gripping me demanded. “Will you bow before your leader?”

He released his hold on me and reached for an identical photograph. Pale skin. Black hair. Pronounced cheekbones and sculpted lips. I tried to avert my eyes. Holding an image of Julien this close to me was like thrusting a crucifix in a vampire’s face.

The sensible approach would be to bow, but the first soldier had a screaming Michaela on the ground, and I suspected the moment for compromise and collaboration had passed.

“Actually, I’m not required to bow,” I replied.

“Everyone must bow before the First Lord,” he snapped.

I reached for my gun while the soldier remained bamboozled by his indignation. He flinched back at the sight, but I had no interest in him. Before anyone could gather their wits and try to stop me, I aimed and fired a single bullet straight into Michaela’s skull.

The shot was better than I’d hoped. She didn’t even have time to scream before her suffering ended, along with the risk of her saying anything she shouldn’t. I thought of the little girl I’d first met and of the sparky young creature I’d come to know over the last few days, with her hopes of romance. I didn’t regret my decision, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Story of my life.

The soldiers froze in a moment of stunned silence, and in the confusion, I thought I might be able to get another shot off after all. But the soldier who’d been holding me all along pulled me into a headlock. The others drew their guns and surrounded me.

“Drop your weapon,” the second soldier cried.

I considered blurting out my whole story, but I doubted they’d believe me.

“I’ll drop it,” I replied, fighting to keep the tremor out of my voice. “Just promise you’ll take me to the nearest barracks. There’s something I need to tell your commanding officer.”

The second soldier nodded. I dropped the gun, and while my captor kept a tight hold, the third soldier slammed his rifle into the back of my head. Sickening pain reverberated through me, before I slipped into darkness.

***

The dim strip lights on the roof did little to alleviate either the dinginess of the windowless room I woke up in, or the throbbing in my head. My captors had secured me to a sturdy metal chair, and the three of them now milled around, accompanied by a few other soldiers of the First Lord’s army.

“I see you’re awake,” the taller of the three soldiers said. “I’m looking forward to hearing your explanation of what happened out there. You’re Treaty, that’s obvious enough from the outfit, the refusal to bow, and the prowess with a gun. But where were you going? And what were you so scared about your pretty friend telling us?”

“I want to see your commanding officer,” I said. My dry mouth made speaking difficult. I must have been unconscious for several hours.

“General Moreham is entertaining senior officials of the Regime tonight. He wouldn’t want to be pulled away from the dinner table to deal with the likes of you.”

Moreham. I’d worried that people had moved on, and the commander of this garrison would be unknown to me, but Moreham would recognise me anywhere. He might even show me some sympathy. The senior officials bit alarmed me more. Please don’t let his guest be Peter, or I’ll never make it back to London in one piece. I pushed the unwelcome thought aside.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Call Richard, please.”

The soldier’s eyes widened at my use of his commanding officer’s first name, but he didn’t relent. “Then perhaps you should tell me.”

“Fetch Richard.”

In reply, he picked up a metal bar, which I’d have struggled to lift, and smashed it into my bound right arm. I screamed, as much at the foreboding sound of cracking bone as at the sudden rush of pain.

“Don’t do this. If you hurt me, you’ll pay.”

The soldier laughed in my face. “You think the Treaty is going to burst in here and save you? You think Red David’s going to ride up on his white steed and whisk you away? We’re in the middle of a fortress, you stupid cow. Forget the Treaty. The First Lord’s Army are in control here.”

Slumped in my chair, I laughed. “I’ve already forgotten about the Treaty. I had business with them, but they mean nothing to me. It’s not the rebels who’ll make you pay. If you hurt me, Julien will destroy you, destroy your Regiment, destroy your home and your family.”

“Julien who?” the solder asked. He raised the bar, as if to hit me again, but this time, his voice carried a note of doubt.

“Oh for God’s sake. Which Julien do you think I mean?” I twisted my head and nodded lightly at the giant poster that dominated the left wall. He’d gelled his hair back for the picture, and he wore a rather fetching military outfit, but my pain and fear prevented the image having much of an effect on me.

With all of the “First Lord” and “Beloved Leader” crap they spouted, I wasn’t entirely sure they even knew Julien’s first name, but they seemed to get the point.

“Sir, I think we should get Moreham down here. If it’s all bullshit, and she really is just some worthless Treaty bit-player, he’ll be annoyed at having his dinner disturbed and might give us extra patrols and half rations for a week. If she’s a big name in the Treaty, or something else entirely, and we handle this wrong, we could be court-martialled.”

My interrogator scowled, as though the thought of taking advice from someone of an inferior rank physically pained him. “I don’t believe a word the little bitch is saying, but I suppose that makes sense. Go and get him, and on your head be it if he’s angry at being disturbed.”

“Who should I tell him we have down here?”

“Tell him it’s Marianne,” I called, before the head goon could give his suggestion. My real name reverberated strangely on my lips after so many years of being Melanie.

“Marianne who?”

Again, I laughed. “He’ll know which Marianne you mean. Or at least, the suspicion will be enough to make him put down his port and visit the dungeons.

The soldier heaved open a heavy wooden door and slammed it behind him. I hoped that my faith in Moreham wasn’t misplaced. He’d always been a little too fond of wine and a little too reluctant to be proactive.

“So, Marianne. I don’t have any intention of looking stupid in front of the commander of the garrison. You travel with the Treaty, you shoot your companion dead, you expect “Richard” to know who you are, and you threaten to bring the wrath of “Julien” down on my head. Who the fuck are you, and what’s your game?”

I studied the floor and resolved to hold my silence until Moreham appeared.

“Answer me, Marianne.”

He mercifully dropped the rod, but then balled his right fist and smashed it into the side of my face. I cried out like I’d been stabbed. I’ve always been mentally strong, but I’m a coward in the face of physical pain. Still, it was far from the worst punch I’d ever taken.

“You said I might get in trouble for hurting you, but it seems like that ship’s already sailed. If you’re as precious as you claim, I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.”

He hit me again, on the other side this time. Despite my attempts to stay strong, I sobbed uncontrollably, which only made me choke on the blood that flooded my dry, aching mouth.

“Tell me the truth,” he screamed, glaring at my face as though the blood and the sound of my pain personally insulted him.

Was this what he’d signed up to the First Lord’s Army to do? Perhaps he still regarded me as a Treaty member, despite my claims to the contrary, and believed that made me fair game. After all, the army hadn’t started the bombing campaign.

“If I thought you’d believe me, I’d tell you,” I sobbed. “But you’d think I was lying or deluded. Please stop hitting me. Please wait for Moreham.”

“Tell me,” he screamed again, squeezing my broken arm until I screamed in turn.

“What the hell is going on down here? This had better be worth my dinner being disturbed. I have important guests here tonight. Extremely important guests.” Moreham’s pompous, well-educated voice cut through the dim room.

I’d never heard such a welcome sound in my life, though pain prevented me calling out in reply. I stared at him, resplendent in his ceremonial uniform.

“Jones, unhand the prisoner. We’re not barbarians, and whoever the girl is and whatever she’s done, she’s not much danger to you sitting tied to a chair, surrounded by men, in an army dungeon.”

Jones stepped away, and I took a ragged breath. “She claims to know you, sir,” he said, saluting. “I suspect it’s Treaty lies and if that’s the case, I’m sorry to have called you down here. But she insisted on speaking to you, and we decided not to risk denying her.”

“Who are you, girl? Ross here claimed you’re called Marianne, but the only Marianne I know is dead.”

“It’s me, Richard,” I said in a choked voice.

He crossed the room as if he were trudging through mud, as though he wasn’t ready for the moment when I’d confirm what he already knew.

Between the dirt and the blood, I’d struggle to recognise myself in a mirror, and Moreham hadn’t seen me in five years—five years in which I’d changed immeasurably. But he put one hand on my shoulder, used the other to gently tilt back my bruised head, and stared at my face and into my eyes.

He drew his ceremonial sword. I flinched, but he skilfully cut my bonds without touching my skin or ruining my khaki jacket. He took a sharp intake of breath. “It’s really you, isn’t it?”

“It’s really me.”

He leaned in and whispered so that only I could hear. “Part of me thinks I ought to run you through with this sword right now and save you, me, and my sworn lord an awful lot of trouble. God knows what you’ve been up to, but I doubt any of it was good.”

I tensed, but instead of doing as he’d threatened, he touched the sword to my forehead in a formal gesture.

“Even so, I know who I swore my oath to.” He straightened up and faced the crowd of bemused soldiers.

“Jones, Carter. I appreciate that you acted in a manner you thought appropriate at the time, but I need you to leave, now. I need you to head out of town immediately and get as far away from here as possible.”

They both saluted, and then stared at the far wall, perhaps wondering what their punishment would be and what rules they had actually broken. The army didn’t exactly have a zero tolerance approach to brutality against political prisoners.

Jones trembled. “But sir, that sounds like desertion, and everyone knows that’s punishable by death.”

“A deserter always has the chance he may evade his pursuers. Or if the worst comes to the worst, it’ll be a bullet to the back of the head.”

Carter knelt on the ground. “Sir, I don’t understand. I’m a loyal soldier of the First Lord. I want to fight to keep this country safe from the rebels and leave him free to carry out his great works. How can you ask me to turn my back on that?”

“Do you remember Olivia Livelton?” Moreham asked the two puzzled men.

Jones frowned. “She was a mistress of the First Lord. The daughter of some western army major.”

Moreham nodded. “Indeed. And do you remember what happened to the colonel who subsequently raped her?”

Every man in the room shivered. Some things didn’t need to be put in to words.

“There are worse ways to die than a deserter’s bullet, gentlemen,” Moreham said, softly.

I wondered what had happened to the colonel. The Treaty denounced the ingenious tortures of the Regime, but in my opinion, army rapists deserved whatever awful fates befell them.

Moreham turned his attention from Jones and Carter and barked out orders. “Smith, go to the infirmary and bring a doctor and a stretcher. Melville, go to the servant’s quarters, summon my wife’s lady’s maid, and have her find make-up that’s capable of hiding bruises. Chrisson, go to the state dining room, pour our most esteemed guest a large whisky, and ask him to retire to my study. Or if he won’t move, which is of course his prerogative, ask all the other guests to depart to the drawing room so that he has some privacy.”

None of them quite seemed to understand Moreham’s orders, but the Regime had trained them to obey, and they all headed towards the door. Before they or the fleeing Jones and Carter could reach it, it swung open and a figure walked into the room.

“I gave strict orders not to be disturbed,” Moreham snapped.

“Moreham, you’ve been hours. The champagne’s getting warm and the Lobster Thermidor is getting cold. If it’s nothing, then for goodness sake, come back to dinner and have the man who called you punished. But if something’s going on, I want to know about it.”

The speaker walked into the room, and Moreham’s complaint died on his lips as he fell to his knees. All around me, the soldiers did the same, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with awe. I shook. I was not ready for this. Perhaps I never would be, but certainly not here, broken and dirty and covered in blood. I’d wanted to meet him as an equal—or as close as anyone got nowadays—looking beautiful and elegant and staring confidently into his haunting face.

“Bow down, for goodness sake,” Moreham hissed.

I laughed through the pain. “I don’t have to bow, remember?”

I’d made my Treaty vow never to bow to the First Lord, like all the other rebels, but it hadn’t actually made any difference to my position. I’d meant what I’d told Carter in the forest. Alone of everyone in the country, I didn’t have to bow to Julien. We’d written it into the damn constitution. And yet, as I glimpsed his piercing green eyes and aristocratic face, the subconscious urge to prostrate myself before him almost overcame me. I leaned back in the chair and kept my aching head firmly raised, and as his gaze swept over me, I saw genuine shock on his face for the first time I could ever remember.

Everyone else continued to kneel as he walked towards me in a trance. A kiss or a bullet to the head. They seemed equally possible.

And then, he reached me, and his arms closed around me, drawing my head into his velvet-covered chest. I shook and cried in his embrace.

Julien utterly consumed most of my mind and my senses—the smell of the woody, lemony scent he’d always worn, the feel of his fine clothes, after years of mass-produced rubbish, the sight of his tall, lean figure and long, elegant hands and swept-back dark hair.

Part of me, though, still maintained enough composure to register the presence of the soldiers, and I smiled at my tormentors’ shock. There must be few experiences worse than suddenly finding yourself in the glorious presence of the man you’re sworn to serve—the man you revere and idolise almost as a living —only to see, in this moment you’ve dreamt of all your life, your liege lord passionately and hysterically embracing the woman you’ve spent the last hour torturing. Your liege lord, who may be glorious and all-powerful, but who isn’t particularly known for mercy. It almost made me sorry for Jones. Almost.

Julien tightened his grip. I flinched and cried out as he caught my broken arm. It was never a good idea to show weakness in front of him, but the pain overrode my caution.

Julien straightened and touched my arm probingly, while I whimpered.

“Who broke her arm?” His voice exploded like a gunshot in a darkened room.

With my good arm, I gestured towards Jones. “He did.” I could have been merciful, but what had they done to earn my forgiveness?  Julien’s spirit always got into my blood and made me want vengeance and power.

I hadn’t thought Jones could physically press himself any deeper into the floor, but somehow he managed it. “My Lord, I’m sorry. I meant no harm. I just wanted answers from her. She was clearly with the Treaty, and she wouldn’t bow to your image.”

Julien laughed. “She isn’t required to bow to me.”

God, I’d almost forgotten that laugh. Sweet, ringing and full of joy, with the tiniest hint of madness to provide a touch of seasoning to the sounds. I curled my bruised lips into a smile, pleased he’d remembered our agreement, delighted he still believed it.

“Who do you swear your oath of loyalty to, soldier?”

Jones forced his body still further into the ground, but raised his head to speak. “I swear it to you, sir. I’m utterly loyal to you.” I suspected Jones might cry. The First Lord tended to have that effect on people.

“Very good. Your fealty is noted. And who else do you swear loyalty to?”

For a moment or two, Jones seemed unsure what Julien expected of him. Finally, he managed to whisper out an answer. “To the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”

Really? They still swore the oath after all this time? Oh Julien. You old sentimentalist.

“Indeed. And I’m afraid you’ve broken your vow. By rights, I really should have you tortured to death, but I’ve got better things to do today.”

He gave me a meaningful glance, and I still couldn’t decide whether the “better things to do” involved laying me down and kissing every inch of my body or hooking me up to electrodes and running an electric current through it. Julien could communicate a thousand implications with one glance, but he was not an easy man to read.

He pulled a solid gold gun out of the bejewelled holster at his hip. Instead of further attempts at conversation, he pointed the tacky weapon at Jones and shot a bullet straight into his bowed head, which exploded on impact. He’d always been an exemplary shot. Without pausing for breath, he fired another shot to execute Carter.

I pointed to one of the other soldiers. “That one tried to rape my friend.”

He didn’t even hesitate, just swung the gun away from the ruined bodies of Jones and Carter, and fired towards the solider who’d pinned Michaela to the tree.

“And who broke your nose?”

I shrugged. “That one’s an old wound.” I shuddered at the memory of that blow, but I’d die rather than see the man who’d inflicted it punished.

“Moreham, what sort of barracks are you running here? Breaking women’s arms? Attempted rape? You’re clearly not setting the sort of example I’ve come to expect.” Before I could beg him not to, he fired at the general’s chest, at the man who’d once been his superior and who’d helped him to deliver his coup. No one dared to scream.

“Now, as I came in, I heard orders around getting medical assistance and running baths and finding clothes, all of which sound like excellent ideas. Anyone who was supposed to be helping, for God’s sake, get on with it. Everyone else, if you head to the second floor, you’ll find a feast in progress. Help yourself to the food and drink. The burgundy is particularly good.”

Bowing and scraping, most of our companions rushed for the door, but some hesitated.

Careful of my broken arm, Julien leaned in and kissed me. “Go, all of you, before I lose my customary cool. I want a moment alone with my wife.”