It is seven years since the Cousins’ War ended. King Roald has brought peace to the Three Kingdoms and driven the last heirs of the king he deposed into exile. His brother Thomas, Duke of Wharram, is a man for whom loyalty is the greatest virtue and family the highest cause. So when his sister Josiane, Duchess of Bergomance, finds herself widowed, her beloved stepdaughter Ambrosia beleaguered by suitors and her late husband’s coffers mysteriously empty, who better to send than Thomas?
But the ghosts of old wars are waiting in Bergomance, and new threats are rising. Some see heresy everywhere, and others look to an Empire in the east that has suddenly begun seeking allies.
And into it all, a ship driven off course by storms brings a young man fleeing King Roald’s mercenaries and throws him into Thomas’s path. Nicolas ás Ithel, a man with dark eyes and a love of numbers, and an inheritance in his veins that could reignite the Cousins’ War.
The Duke Is Dead, say its authors Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley, is a story of love, danger, intrigue, blood magic, vast amounts of sarcasm and a pygmy hippo.
I invited them over to this blog to ask how on earth any of that happened…
Irene Headley: Really, we can all blame this on the city of Bath.
Also, Bourgogne, Quelle Histoire!, which I picked up whilst on holiday in Burgundy in an attempt to improve my French. (See also that child’s book of Hapsburg Empresses in German in order to…you can guess.)
Ankaret Wells: It was 2013, the remains of Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, and Irene and I were sitting together in a café in Bath talking about it. I think IH might have had some copies of The Ricardian?
IH: I have a somewhat complex relationship with Richard III, best exemplified by the time when I was ten, I was at a castle day out decorating Wars of the Roses themed biscuits, and my mother leaned down and gently informed me that if I put the Red Rose of Lancaster on any of them, I was walking home. I’m still not entirely sure whether she was joking.
AW: I just read The Daughter Of Time at an impressionable age.
IH: Oh, I did that too. It’s the only Josephine Tey I’ve gotten through without screwing my face up because I was too young to recognise the weirdness.
AW: We were talking about the size of the Richard III Society compared to the plucky but outnumbered Henry VII Society, and somehow (I don’t think we were drunk at this point?)
IH: I think this was the trip to Bath where it was bucketing it down, not the one where I drank an inadvisable quantity of Pimms in the blazing sunshine, and then got very emotional about the memorial plaques in the Abbey*. We kept choosing cafés based on their proximity to the place we’d just left. This particular cafe was filled with plants.
AW: We somehow came up with the idea that the way to reconcile Henricians and Ricardians was to unite them in outrage against Richard III / Henry VII slash.
(Actually I’m sure the vast majority of both societies are sensible people whose attitude to m/m fiction is either ‘Not my thing, but why would I care what other people read?’, ‘Only #ownvoices, thanks’ or ‘Bring it on!’)
We spent a while composing letters between Henry trying to wrangle his uproarious uncles and being comprehensively outfoxed by Elizabeth Woodville and Richard being Sensible. And then IH suggested we set it after the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy.
IH: I have always felt incredibly bad for Mary of Burgundy, Charles’s only child, and Richard III’s step-niece, who was married to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria just over six months after her father’s death, and died five years later in a riding accident. (This is where Bourgogne, Quelle Histoire!, comes in! It has a picture in which Mary appears to be declaring her love to her horse) We already knew that a world in which Henry and Richard loved each other wasn’t going to end in Henry killing Richard, and had somehow ended up shipping Elizabeth Woodville/Henry, while I was refusing to be parted from my OTP of Richard/Anne Neville. And then we thought: what if that’s when they fall in love? They’re not technically enemies yet, and we get to find Mary a different husband. Win-Win!
AW: So, we got them as far as meeting in Bruges – there was a joke about Henry saying his name was Richmond and Richard, in a hurry, saying ‘Oh, you’re Dick too?’ – and then I threw a spanner in the works and Irene, may any entities up there bless her, didn’t turn around and murder me.
I said ‘I think this ought to be fantasy’. We started renaming dynasties and kingdoms. For me at least, that was when the characters started coming alive. In particular, the cardboard cutout of Jasper Tudor, boorishly considering courting the much younger Mary, turned into Morcant as Ithel, unshakeably poetic about all the wrong things but practical about most of the right ones, a man who would no more consider offering himself to a teenage duchess than he would change his religion for profit, but who fell in love like a ton of bricks with the most inconvenient person possible.
When we started out, some of the characters (mostly Yorkists) were Irene’s and some (mostly Lancastrians) were mine, but by the end we were both writing everybody.
IH: Making it a fantasy also meant that we got to do a lot with the Richard II and Henry IV figures. Richard II became Queen Sidonia and stayed that way, Henry IV went through a few changes before becoming irrevocably Queen Julia. We also got to create the Kosmotic Empire, which I may at one point have described as ‘basically matrilineal Byzantium’, which led to the existence of Melissa and Richza, my favourite diplomatic duo.
The only problem was that we had to cut out a lot of dynastic backstory and sidestory, at which point we brought in the chapter headings so that the reader got an idea of what got everyone to this point. (Admittedly, a number of the chapter headings are written by authors so biased as to be actively misleading…) This also led to Ankaret’s love affair with the town of Foswich.
AW: We have a lot more planned for this world, and we really hope you enjoy your visit. Watch out for the pygmy hippos.
*In my defence, Irene adds, there is a plaque raised by a widowed mother who had lost her son in the Napoleonic Wars and her daughter to a fever which says something about how her only comfort is that God clearly needed them more than she did.
The Duke Is Dead is available now from Lulu and other retailers.