While waiting on the cover art for Victory Portrait I thought it would be fun to share an excerpt. Here’s one from the first chapter, wherein a young imperial captive named Peta learns he has a chance to realize a dream and meet the famous general about whom he has fantasized for years….
|Inspiration for Peta|
Peta’s heart squeezed tight, as if no blood filled its chambers. Arrento hated his family? And him by association? “Lorant did it,” he hastened to explain, “and my father when he didn’t send her back. But no one asked the rest of us. The girls and me…we were at school. We didn’t even know—”
“I realize that…now. It took some explaining. Maybe in time.”
Time, the worst of platitudes. There was never enough of it, or of opportunity. Peta realized he was staring at his booted feet the way he always did when trying to think of a way out of an impossible situation.
“I could force a meeting, of course.”
“No.” Peta couldn’t bear the thought of the great man begrudging his presence. “I mean, I’d rather not.”
Gaspar nodded that he understood. He looked thoughtful. “Then maybe you will indulge me in something else. I would like to ask a favor of you.”
“A favor?” This was the part that didn’t make sense. Under every definition of slavery that Peta knew of, Gaspar could have simply ordered him.
“I have a problem, a very interesting one, and you could help me. Trouble is, it impinges on your body.”
Peta simply stared at him. Where was this conversation going? Gaspar was confusing at times, but the emperor was neither a lover of men nor a whoremonger. Right now he looked like an earnest older brother.
An unopened crate creaked as Gaspar sat upon it. He was being congenial. “The problem is simple: while I own your body, you inhabit it.”
“That’s a problem?”
“But now it is?”
“It is, because I have a use for your body—and I need to be sure my plan won’t permanently damage our relationship.”
That statement begged to be turned inside out and made to reveal its bones. “I fail to see how a slave’s relationship to his master can be damaged by the master’s use of him.”
Gaspar lifted The Pargaea Campaign and riffled the thick pages. Music from another level of the villa drifted in through the chamber’s one window to mingle with the sound of disturbed paper. “Our relationship could not be harmed were you, say, a book. If I read a book, or lend my book to someone else, the book doesn’t really have an opinion about that, does it? No book I ever read did.” A bit of warmth crept into Gaspar’s voice. “You, however, possess qualities a book does not, foremost being feelings, memory, and will. Slavery might subjugate the will, but it doesn’t remove feelings. And memory can turn bad feelings into daggers against those who cause them.”
What Gaspar was trying to say made sense, though Peta wasn’t sure yet how it applied specifically to him or whether he should be getting worried. “I bear you no ill will, sir,” he hastened to assure the man. “My father…he wants me erased from this world, and his anger is even greater because he believes pagans thwarted his punishment. He prays to the Prophets, asking for god to smite me.” He swallowed fear of his father along with uncertainty over where this conversation was leading. “If becoming your slave got me away from him, I owe you at the very least the courtesy of a slave’s obedience.”
My life, he could have said, remembering how his father had tried to kill his sister the day they’d both been taken into Gaspar’s custody. I owe you all our lives.
“I should get you to give that pretty speech to my other slaves. They might learn something from it.” Gaspar laid the book aside and hunkered forward, getting to his point. “I do want your obedience, but I would also like your consent. That’s the tricky part.”
“Maybe if you would tell me what I’d be consenting to…”
“I’m getting to that.”
“Today?” Peta seasoned the prod with a grin.
Gaspar laughed. “I wish I didn’t like you. Ordering you would be easy in that event. ‘Do it or else’ works in most cases. But I do like you, you have royal rank even as a slave, and I’m marrying your sister—all of which narrows the amount of room I have to work with. So here is my proposition: I want you to assist a painter.”
“A painter?” Peta had feared worse. Now he was intrigued.
“Aldous Brazzi. You won’t be the subject, you’ll be the…helper. He has an unusual process. You’d be naked and, well, he can explain the rest to you better than I can. He’s not predatory. Adora assures me of that; she defended him from charges of indecency and she’s convinced he won’t do anything out of line. I am your owner, after all. No one can use you without my permission.”
The painter, then, was not the cause for concern. Which only meant…. Peta’s mouth went dry. “Who is the subject?”
It should not have been possible for mere syllables to evoke so many feelings. Peta had seen with his own eyes seasoned generals blanch upon learning Arrento had set foot on Sebboyan soil. He’d heard with his own ears his father and brothers, and other of his countrymen, call Arrento god-forsaken, a monster, the Butcher of Cheda—and then later he had heard the people of Uttor cheer Arrento’s name in the streets. Savior. Hero. Favorite of the gods. Arrento’s fame spanned the world and Peta could not remember a time when hearing that name had not heated his blood, filled his loins, and set his imagination soaring.
He was staring at his boots again and it took a few moments to realize Gaspar was still in the room, studying his response.
“Are you all right?” the emperor asked.
“I—I don’t understand. You said—”
“All I said is I want you to assist the painter. All I want from Darius is that he sit for the damn portrait. Is that too much to ask?”
No. Of course it wasn’t, but….
“That’s the problem,” Gaspar continued. “I know Darius. I know exactly what his response to sitting for this painting is going to be—and that is where you come in.”
“Me?” That Peta managed to shape that much of a word was an accomplishment.
“This is where you have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
If there was one thing Peta had learned from his short experience as Gaspar’s slave, it was that the man’s reputation as an inept heir who should never have become emperor differed vastly from reality: Gaspar’s maneuvers, military and political, rivaled his general’s for brilliance. They were just a little harder to follow. That Uttor’s enemies had yet to realize this was one of the reasons they failed so miserably at fighting him.
“You want me to assist the painter. Only that?”
“Yes. I just want you to understand you will be naked and…Brazzi will want you to be sexually aroused.”
“It’s what Brazzi does. Not for himself—not unless you’re a woman—but for his method. He was tried three years ago on charges of obscenity because he uses…sexual fluids for mixing his paint. He truly is a genius. His colors are astonishing.”
“And you want Arrento to see me like that? Naked and…being used?”
“No.” Gaspar was being firm. “I want a portrait of my general. And I happen to think that the sight of you will keep his ass firmly planted for whatever sittings the painter requires. You see, Darius has one weakness—only one. He cannot resist a thing of beauty—and you, my pretty slave, are the most breathtaking young man I have ever had the privilege to look upon.”
Peta flushed. Gaspar wasn’t smiling. The man was serious.
Could he do it? Did he want to do it? Peta knew he was pretty. His looks had blessed and cursed him all his life. His beauty had attracted Kesme as a fellow cadet and was what Kesme had praised that last night when they’d made love...and Peta’s face was what Lukacz, his own father, had sought to destroy, thinking that doing so would release him from predation and unnatural desires. And now Gaspar, too, wanted only one thing….
“Just sit there and look pretty,” he said, heart sinking as he grasped what Gaspar was asking him to do.
“Only if you’re willing. I’m not completely oblivious to what this sort of service might entail. It could be rather…awkward. On the other hand, it might not be for long. Darius can be stubborn. It’s possible he won’t show up.”
And just as possible that he would.
Peta wanted to say no but he could not get his mouth to form the word. He might never get another chance to see Arrento, perhaps hear his voice. Be in the same room with him.
He’d be silent…naked…terribly exposed even in his utter worship.
But he would at least be able to say he had seen the great man.
“I’ll do it,” he said.