An excerpt from Persona by Genevieve Valentine, which will be published on March 10th by Saga Press.
The International Assembly audience hall was half-empty—too empty, Suyana might have said, in her first year there, when she was still surprised by the distance between good public relations and good politics. Now, looking across so many empty seats just made her heavy to the bones.
“Georgia,” the proctor called. “Germany. Ghana. Gibraltar.”
Missed opportunity, Suyana thought, every time the proctor’s eyes fell on an empty chair. An open vote was one of the rare times Faces pretended at politics. You were voting the way you were told, but even pretending was something, and she couldn’t imagine giving it up.
The rest of your life was photo shoots and PSAs and school visits, and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.
Suyana put up with the rest of it because three or four times a year, she got to raise her hand and be counted. And today was a vote, and only half were here.
Some—the ones who ranked above her on guest lists— didn’t bother. Some feared what would happen if they did the wrong thing in front of the Big Nine, and their handlers had advised them to steer clear.
Her stomach twisted.
“They might as well just decide without us and inform us how we voted by mail,” she muttered.
Magnus said without looking over, “Try to sound professional, please, on the incredibly slim chance a reporter has a camera on you.”
No chance. The United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces. Cameras had watched her for six weeks, until some other story broke.
That was before Magnus had been installed; she suspected he’d have worked harder to keep her in the public eye.
She pulled the day’s agenda into her lap, and picked the corners of the page off one at a time, where no one could see.
Magnus glanced over, said nothing.
In the sea of middle-aged handlers always conferring just out of camera range, Magnus looked more like a Face— tall, slender, fair, with a sharp expression—and she suspected he’d washed out from IA training, once upon a time.Just as well—he cast glances at the Big Nine as if he couldn’t wait to cut himself free of her. Diplomats couldn’t be so nakedly ambitious.
Little pieces of paper came off in her hands.
She couldn’t blame him; sometimes people had different loyalties than they were supposed to.
Smooth it over, she reminded herself. Keep an even keel. Don’t let anyone catch you out. Some things you can’t afford.
“I’m just nervous,” she said, softly.
It was true, but it was also what Magnus wanted to hear from her. Sure enough, he looked over.
“Understandable,” he said, high praise from him. “I have the rental.”
The rental was a necklace that was supposed to make her look fashionable, prosperous, alluring. Suyana thought it was useless, since her owning a bib of semiprecious stones would seem either openly false or a monstrous luxury depending on how much you knew about UARC economics, but Magnus had set his mind on it, and she wasn’t going to let it matter.
“Not sure it will do much. In Closer last year, he said he liked natural beauties.”
Magnus raised an eyebrow. “How cosmopolitan.”
“Iceland,” the proctor called. “India.”
“I don’t like the non-compete clause,” Magnus said. “Six months is restrictive. They’re hoping to leverage the re-up option in case the public likes you.” From his tone of voice, that wasn’t likely.
“Exclusivity ends the day the contract ends. They have the physical clause; you can’t enforce a non-compete on that. If he doesn’t want me to go elsewhere, he can make his offer alongside everyone else.”
He frowned. Three years on, he still got surprised whenever she slipped and got honest. (Most of the time Suyana wanted to strangle him. She measured her success as a diplomat by how little he caught on.)
“Japan,” the proctor called, and at the Big Nine table, far down the chamber ahead of her, the Face from Japan raised his hand.
“Suyana,” Magnus said, as careful as with any stranger he was trying to persuade. “We’re not in a place to dictate changes. We’re lucky they’re interested. After what happened—”
“I remember what happened.”
There was a little silence.
She missed Hakan, a knife of grief sliding between her ribs. She held her breath, like it could bring him back from the dead. Smooth expression, she thought. Show nothing. Be nothing.
“Norway,” the proctor called, with no answer.
Only six of the Big Nine had deigned to appear. Grace, the best of the lot, was without her handler—she always looked more eligible sitting alone. Grace was number two on Intrigue magazine’s Most Eligible Faces list for the fourth year in a row.
Suyana had already planned an attack of nerves so she’d miss Grace’s party. She was wary of open invitations; felt too much like charity sometimes.
Norway’s seats were empty. They were voting on some potential additions to the IA’s Human Rights Declaration, but apparently Martine didn’t think that was something that needed her attention.
(“You should go talk to her,” Magnus said once at an afternoon reception, and Suyana said, “Yes, nothing raises your social stock like being ignored by your betters.”)
Ethan Chambers, the American Face, had sent one of his assistants as a proxy; the Big Nine had enough staff to have them in two places at once.
At least there she knew the reason why.
Ethan Chambers was sitting in a boutique hotel a few miles away, waiting to meet her and sign the contract for a six-month public relationship. There would also be discussion of the terms of the physical clause; they were rare enough that they required careful debate, which meant everyone was preparing for several awkward hours. Still, you did what you had to, to get someone’s attention—the physical clause was the reason the United States had taken her offer seriously.
uyana suspected the American team thought that if Ethan got her in bed, she’d get emotionally involved, and be easier to pressure with PR fallout whenever they wanted the UARC to fall in line.
Everyone could dream, she supposed.
“New Zealand,” the proctor called, and a few rows in front of her, Kipa raised her hand for each count of the amendments. Each time, it was steady and sure, and Kipa locked her elbow as if to make sure her vote was counted. Suyana tried not to smile. Her turn was coming soon enough, and she didn’t want to know what she looked like when she was pretending she made a difference.
After she’d exercised her duties, there would be lunch with Ethan. After lunch, they’d start mapping out the first place they’d be caught together “accidentally.”
“United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation,” the proctor called.
Suyana smiled for the cameras, raised her hand to be counted.
Daniel wished he’d stolen a camera he actually knew how to use.
He huddled deeper into the restaurant alley and pried the long end of a paper clip into the lens assembly, trying to loosen whatever had jammed the thing in the first place before the sedan showed up and he missed his chance to shoot Suyana. His hands were shaking a little.
Suyana Sapaki was a risk for a shoot on spec. She’d barely escaped being burned out three years ago; she was on the verge of a comeback, but a verge is a tricky thing to measure. Too late and you’re drowned in the tide, too early and the pictures go for nothing and get used as archive footage without royalties whenever they finally do something interesting.
But the alley was perfectly positioned across the street from the swank hotel where Ethan Chambers, Face of the United States, was waiting to meet Suyana Sapaki on business unknown. The bellboy Daniel bribed said Ethan had been there since yesterday while his empty car drove all over town.
The lens assembly slid back into place, and Daniel settled behind a garbage can—the poor man’s tripod—to focus before Suyana’s car showed up.
He hoped it was worth what he’d spent on intel to catch negotiations between the US Face and what Daniel suspected was his girlfriend-to-be. He couldn’t afford to go home.
The sedan turned the corner—a cab, not one from the IA fleet. Daniel braced his hands. They still shook a little before a great shot. (It was embarrassing—he was twenty-two, not twelve, he knew how to take pictures—but sometimes the thrill got the better of him.)
Magnus got out first. He was the UARC’s new handler, a pro from some Scandinavian country they’d brought in to help spin the disaster, and he looked like a man who was used to getting out of messes clean.
Magnus scanned the square for a moment before he reached back into the car, to call Suyana out.
[Submission 35178, Frame 7: Magnus Samuelsson standing beside a black sedan sitting around the corner from the front entrance to the Chanson Hotel. Subject in profile and three-quarters length, hand extended into the backseat of the car, looking at something out of frame.]
Weird, Daniel thought, risking a glance up from the viewfinder. Magnus didn’t seem the type to get swept up in scenery, and it wasn’t as though Ethan Chambers would be standing with flowers at the balcony to greet the girl he might be about to contract to date.
He didn’t know much about most of the IA handlers— you weren’t supposed to, that’s why countries had Faces, to give you something to look at—but something seemed off. Had they fought in the car? Was Magnus just cautious? Had he arranged for official nation-affiliated photographers to catch the first moments of budding romance, and Daniel was going to be without an exclusive after all this?
But then Suyana stepped out of the car, and Daniel forgot everything in the queasy thrill of a scoop.
[Submission 35178, Frame 18: Suyana Sapaki (Face UARC), sliding out of the backseat of a sedan. Large necklace—appears genuine (ID and trail of ownership TK). Face three-quarters, turned to the hotel. Has not taken Samuelsson’s hand.]
Daniel had, once or twice in his research for this, questioned why Suyana had been considered the best option for the Face of the UARC. She was Peruvian, and the Brazilian contingent had given her flak for it—they were a much bigger slice of that pie, and a Quechua was playing even harder against the numbers, unless you were going after diversity points. She was a little stocky in a world that liked its Faces tall and thin, a little hard around the eyes in an organization that prized girls who could fawn when the cameras were going. Even from here it looked like she was suffering a punishment. No way that was true—if she could get Ethan to sign on the dotted line, it was a PR coup the UARC could only dream of.
But her brown skin and knotted black hair and sharp eyes made a decent picture when the light hit her, and she moved with more purpose than Daniel saw from a lot of IA girls. (Wasn’t much purpose for her to have, except look good and do as she was told. Handlers did the real work. Faces just made it look sharp to the masses. Though nobody wanted a Face getting ideas, as they’d reminded him plenty back home.)
Once the car pulled away, Magnus looked Suyana over with the focus of an auctioneer. He lifted his chin as if inviting her to do the same; Suyana stared through him and didn’t move. Magnus straightened the collar of her shirt, tweaked one of the careless gems on her necklace so that it lay right side up against her collarbone.
Daniel raised his eyebrow into the viewfinder, took a few shots as fast as he could.
He’d seen backstage prep on the Korean Face, Hae Soo-jin, when he was still apprenticing as a licensed photographer. Most of it looked like grooming animals for auction, if you were being honest. This was something different; some message passing back and forth through a necklace that was laughably out of place on her.
Suyana glanced at Magnus for a moment with a frown that was gone before Daniel could catch it. Then she turned her head, as if she was used to being altered by people she didn’t look at.
That was about right. The ideal combination of hanbok and national designers a Face should wear to present the correct ratio of tradition and modernism had been a hot topic at home when he left. The news had a segment on it at least once a week. Historians were weighing in; fashion-industry insiders staged demonstrations. Hae Soo-jin hadn’t been called on for an opinion. Decision making happened before anything ever reached them. You could measure the length of a Face’s career by seeing how good they were at agreeing with other people’s outcomes.
But Suyana had looked at Magnus so strangely. Maybe it bothered her to know how far on the sidelines she stood.
[Submission 35178, Frame 39: Magnus Samuelsson, back to the camera (identified in Frames 1–13). Facing the camera, Suyana Sapaki. Samuelsson has his hand extended toward Sapaki’s elbow. Sapaki looking off-frame (object of gaze unknown), hands in pockets. No acknowledgment.]
“It doesn’t matter,” Suyana said. “He’ll know it’s not mine.” Her voice floated a little around the square before it settled on Daniel.
“We’re impressing an ally, not a jeweler,” said Magnus. “You need all the help you can get. No use looking shabby first thing. Are you ready to be charming?”
She looked right at Magnus, and Daniel flinched at her expression (murderer, he thought wildly, like he was watching a movie) and wished for a concurrent video function so he could try to capture what the hell was even going on.
Then she blinked, and her eyes softened, and her smile broke wide and white across her face. “Of course,” she said, in a voice that sounded barely hers. “Are you ready to chaperone?”
Magnus’s jaw twitched—surprised, maybe, or put out— and he looked back toward the street like he was thinking of making a run for it. “Let’s go.”
Suyana pushed her shoulders back, licked her lips, and headed for the front door of the hotel like she was on her way to a prison sentence. Magnus followed a little behind; most handlers did when their Faces were onstage. There was no good in the policymakers hogging the spotlight.
Daniel should have kept better track of how the light was moving; shadows giving way to the flood of sunlight across the white hotel made him blink into the viewfinder, and he took pictures by reflex as he waited for his eyes to adjust.
He was still waiting when the gunshot rang out.
All the sound was sucked out of the square for a second in the wake of the shot. His finger never stopped moving. He hoped against all luck that he’d managed to catch the moment the bullet hit. If there was a bullet.
There were publicity stunts like this, sometimes, when someone needed the sympathy. They made front pages, no matter how horrible and obvious a ploy it was.
As the shutter clicked, the sound washed back—people shouting behind the closed door of the restaurant, Magnus staggering back with one arm out toward Suyana, casting an eye around the rooftops (why wasn’t he in front of her? Why wasn’t he protecting his charge?).
And Suyana was scrambling up from the ground, favoring one leg but already trying to bolt for the nearest cover. She looked young, in her terror, but her jaw was set—she would live, if she could.
Too bad he’d missed that shot, Daniel thought as he pocketed his memory card and shoved the camera into the trash. He wasn’t going to get arrested for unauthorized photography, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get shot in some publicity stunt. She was coming his way, and he knew when to exit the scene.
But as Suyana dove toward the alley, there was another shot. She staggered and cried out—once, sharp—and he saw she had a bloody hand pressed to her left arm, that now the right leg of her jeans was blooming dark with blood.
He had to get out of there.
But she was running for the alley—lurching, really. She wasn’t going to make it in time to avoid a kill shot if it came, if this wasn’t a stunt. It might be a stunt. Either way, snaps didn’t get involved. The hair on his arms was standing up.
Magnus was shouting, somewhere out of sight (the hotel?). A car engine flared to life (the cab?).
Suyana was gasping for breath.
You’re a sucker, Daniel thought, you’re a sucker, don’t you dare, but by then he was already out in the square, scooping her under her good shoulder.
There was a bottle-cap pop from somewhere far away that he knew must be a bullet. Then they were running a three-legged race into the safety of the alley.
He let go as soon as she was in the shadows, but she caught hold of his elbow with more force than he’d have guessed she could manage. The tips of her fingers were rough; they caught on his sleeve.
“Save it,” he said, eyeing the street on the far side of the alley, to make sure it was clear when he ran for it, but then he made a mistake and looked back at her.
Either she was a damn good actress or she was tougher than he’d thought. Her mouth was pulled tight with panic, but she looked at him like she was sizing him up.
“Thanks,” she said, and somehow it was a demand for information, which was funny coming from someone who was bleeding in two places.
He couldn’t believe he’d gone out there. This was a handler’s job, if the shooting was even real—where the hell was Magnus?—and not one damn second of this was his business except behind a lens. This story had played out, and he was in enough trouble. He’d come back for the camera later. Maybe.
He said, “I have to go.”
Tires screeched around the corner, and from somewhere came the echo of footsteps, and the hair on Daniel’s neck stood up—his heart was in his throat, this was amateur hour, this was chaos.
Who knew this was happening today besides me? he wondered, from some suspicion he didn’t want to examine.
Suyana swayed, braced herself on her good arm against the wall like a sprinter on the starting line, her eyes fixed on the far end of the alley. There were footsteps, voices shouting. They’re looking for us, Daniel realized, and his blood went cold.
Suyana looked up at him, and for a moment he remembered the footage from a few years back, right after terrorists hit the UARC, and she’d bored holes at any camera that crossed her like she was daring them to ask.
Saga Press, March 10, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.
When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.