Imperial captive and former Sebboyan prince Peta Kordeun has one great wish: to meet Darius Arrento, conqueror of his country and a man he has idolized since childhood. That wish comes true the day the Uttoran emperor assigns Peta to assist the artist who will be painting the great general’s official portrait.
General Darius Arrento would rather take a crossbow bolt through his flesh than sit for a portrait, until his friend the emperor forces his hand. The notorious artist, Brazzi, uses semen and other sexual fluids to bind his colors—and Arrento is captivated by the artist’s pretty helper. Before long he is driven to possess the gorgeous young man who draws battle maps and whose naïve charm has won more hearts in Uttor than Arrento has won battles.
When Arrento learns that Peta, the slave he covets and wants for his own, is one of the despised Kordeun princes, he storms from Uttor toward a far corner of the empire—where he quickly finds himself embroiled in a plot to tear Uttor’s empire apart. His emotions and loyalties frayed, the great Arrento is in the battle of his life…and Peta may hold the key to his survival.
“Now you know why Brazzi’s sittings are famous!” Gaspar could not look any smugger. The emperor’s expression was one more reason for Arrento to scowl.
“If the man would spend as much time painting as he does teasing the slave, the damn portrait would be already hanging on your wall!”
Gaspar broke out laughing.
His friend’s mirth shredded the last of Arrento’s resentment against his emperor and he laughed, too. He felt included and welcomed the happiness of being just one man’s friend instead of the commander of a hundred thousand. The days were past when he and Gaspar, both of them younger and less encumbered, had ridden together on campaign. In those days they had been saddled with low expectations and determined to prove themselves. That they had been thrown together by other men eager to see them fail now felt like a joke some wily god had played upon their enemies.
They stood in the yard of a lodge two day’s ride from the Imperial Villa and waited for the grooms to bring their horses. Late summer dew draped the surrounding fields.
“It’s been too long, Darius,” Gaspar said. “I miss having your miserable ass at court. Were you not so valuable a general, I would give some other man your command and ask you to become my Prefect of the Guard. If the man I demote is unhappy, so be it. I am outnumbered in my own palace, surrounded by courtiers and ministers wishing advancement. And they are not the worst of them. I must deal with the Quorum—and the nobles—at every turn. They love nothing more than to get in my way and make my life difficult. It makes me long for the days I was a young officer in your first command.”
“An arrogant young officer too mouthy for my taste. Had my general told me you were the emperor’s son, I would not have tried to seduce you hoping to make your mouth too full of my cock to speak.”
Two grooms appeared, leading their horses. Dogs milled near the hound master and awaited release. Gaspar mounted, showing no sign of his recent injury and looking as fluid and capable as he had been ten years before. His newfound maturity sat well upon him. A few years at the helm of the empire had added gravity to his lean build and easy smile. The intelligence that made him so formidable a ruler gazed back at Arrento through dark-lashed hazel eyes. “Brazzi tells me you have been an exemplary subject.”
Was now the right time to address the matter foremost on his mind? Arrento would have preferred besieging a well-fortified town to asking his friend for a sexual favor. The difference between his and Gaspar’s stations weighed upon him. He was not an aristocrat. He had been a foundling nursed in a temple and handed over to a sonless soldier for raising. Courtly persuasion felt unnatural for his tongue. What he did understand, and well, was the value of good groundwork.
“I commend your cleverness. You provided your artist with a certain means of commanding my full attention.”
“Peta,” Arrento said. Grasping the horn of his saddle, he swung atop Boomer. The tall gray gelding had been his mount for every campaign since his first. After twenty years, the horse was battle-scarred and getting old. Though he had decided to ride another beast on subsequent campaigns, he still favored his faithful friend. “That’s the slave’s name,” he said to counter Gaspar’s look of inquiry. “Did you know he had been bound over to be a Silerian brother?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
After taking up their spears, the two men headed out. They followed the dogs toward the gate that would lead them into the forest where they would be hunting that day. Gaspar spoke again before they reached the trees.
“Do you know why he was to be a Silere?”
Arrento had not asked why, merely assumed it to have been the young man’s choice. However little he thought of some of the choices people made, he had long ago ceased to explore their reasons. “I assume because he follows the teachings of the Seventh Prophet of Koth.”
“I don’t know which Prophet he follows—but that’s not the reason. It’s because his father found out he liked men.” Gaspar shot Arrento a glance sharp with understanding. “See, Darius, I know more than you think. Surely you’ve learned that much about the Sebboyans. They regard sex between those of the same sex as unnatural, an offense to their god. Men and women both. It is a common practice for them to incarcerate sons or daughters with deviant inclinations. They subject them to perpetual prayer and silence to remove the family’s shame.”
“They think we’re ridiculous to allow it.”
“Our gods have fewer delusions about human nature.”
“I would expect so. We’re proof of their inclinations.” The hounds surged ahead with their keepers. The yapping and bounding pack anticipated a good hunt. “Anyway,” his friend continued, “this particular follower of the Prophets is well-suited to Brazzi’s method. He’s modest, of course—they all are—but he isn’t a stranger to such practices as Brazzi employs. I don’t torture my slaves.”
“No, you just use them to torture others.”
“Brazzi required a donor. And so I sent one I thought would keep your ass in that chair.”
“At which you have succeeded!” Boomer snorted and shook his head, prompting Arrento to relax his hands on the reins. “You are diabolical, Gaspar, but heartless. I cannot survive more sessions. My balls were so heavy after the last one, I could barely drag them out the door.” Just past the gate the land opened before them, all secret rolling hills and the shadows of trees wrapped in a light blanket of haze.
“What would you have me do? I’m not letting you out of the portrait.”
“Just allow me—” Damn, but he was saying this badly. “What I mean is…I am sorely tempted by the slave in ways you of all people understand. You’ve been with me for too long and know my weakness for pretty men like that one.”
“Oh, I certainly do.”
“Is this how you treat your friends, by using your intimate knowledge against them?”
“Darius, please. I think it was you who taught me how to gain and use intimate knowledge.”
He had. They had joined forces to survive a succession of commanders, enemies, and mutinous soldiers.
“I wish to use Peta.” He glared at Gaspar for having made saying it necessary. “You knew I would want him, and I do. Are you happy to hear it?”
“Not especially—but I’m not surprised.”
“I know you’re not sleeping with him.” Arrento was more familiar than anyone with Gaspar’s preference for women. That preference had not been so well-rooted in their younger days, but his friend had been bedding only women since their second campaign together.
“True. And neither are you unless I give the word.”
“Now you are simply tightening the screws. Is this repayment for my refusing your drunken advances and not taking your cherry that night in Ozrem?”
“You may be sure of it!” Digging in his spurs, the emperor urged his horse into a gallop over the deep-grassed meadow. Grinning, Arrento slapped Boomer’s arched neck and welcomed his mount’s leap to follow.
Tali Spencer fell in love with writing at an early age and never stopped. Thanks to a restless father, she grew up as a bit of a nomad and still loves to travel whenever she can. Her longest stint in one place was Milwaukee where she went to college, enjoyed a series of interesting careers, and raised three surprisingly well-adjusted sons. She later married her true love and put down new roots in Philadelphia, where she lives in an ongoing Italian-American family sitcom. At least she’s learned how make good pasta. When not writing, Tali reads everything from sweet goofy romances to medical research, manages her fantasy football team—go Gekkos!—and takes long walks with her loving, if slightly neurotic, poodle.
Visit Tali’s blog at http://talismania-brilliantdisguise.blogspot.com