“Her majesty? Yes, I suppose I do know her better than anyone. Let’s see, she loves swimming, riding, archery, smutty adventure stories, and a good glass of wine. By the time she was twelve she’d read probably every book in her kingdom at least once. By the time she was fourteen she could defeat our best veteran hoplites in a sparring match. She gets sleepy when she’s drunk. Her favorite color is dark green, her favorite animal is kittens, and her favorite tea is cinnamon. She’s also ticklish as hell and squeals like an eight-year-old when I blow raspberries against her belly.”
Finished this drawing up a few nights ago and thought I’d post. The ladies pictured here are Queen Viarraluca and her handmaiden Elissa, the leading couple from my novel First Empress. A warrior queen, Viarra wears a linothorax, a common armor from Ancient Greece. (Though she generally wears bronze armor in the novel, I just find the linothorax easier to draw.) Elissa’s dress and hair design based on research and concept art by the lovely Ninidu. For the record, Elissa is around average height: Queen Viarra is just very tall (I figure a little over 6′, though one nobleman she exiles swears she’s over 7′). And Elissa likes that she can listen to her love’s heartbeat every time they embrace.
When I first started First Empress three years ago, I’d fully intended for Queen Viarra to have a true love who she’s never able to marry for political reasons. I had various ideas for a slightly older mentor figure she cares deeply for or a rakish hoplite officer who catches her eye or a simple-but-earnest stable boy who secretly worships her. In fact, in the initial draft of the prologue Elissa didn’t even have a name, she was just the skinny handmaid who happened to survive the attack on the queen’s home. While writing one of the early scenes from Elissa’s POV and trying to get a handle on her relationship to the queen, I discovered that some of Elissa’s feelings kind of bordered on lust. There was this weird moment of clarity where I thought why does the queen’s true love have to be a man? I experimented with their relationship through a number of test scenes and just… liked what it said about Queen Viarra and Elissa. I really liked the idea of this intelligent, insightful, powerful, badass queen having a silly, charming lesbian relationship with her quiet, timid, ordinary, barbarian handmaid.
And I really have striven to make Elissa just kind of ordinary in contrast to Viarra’s sheer level of awesome. Elissa is average height, fairly average intelligence, competent at her duties but not exceptional, basically perceptive but not particularly insightful, not clumsy but not graceful, and not really pretty or homely. Where Viarra is statuesque with shimmering copper hair and a glowing tan, Elissa is kind of skinny with flat brown hair and sunburns easily. I love that Queen Viarra could have pretty much any man or woman in her kingdom, but saves her affection for this plain, ordinary barbarian slave girl.
Additionally, I found Elissa to be an excellent foil for showing Queen Viarra’s more human side. Her majesty is a character who understands the benefits of appearing goddess-like to her subjects—of appearing more than human. To keep Viarra from seeing way too perfect, Elissa becomes an excellent confidante for showing her majesty’s insecurities and weaknesses—for reminding readers that while powerful, intelligent, and charismatic, Viarra is an eighteen-year-old girl who became queen overnight following the murders of her brothers, nieces and nephews by her own uncle. Elissa provides a loving shoulder to cry on and a nonjudgmental ear to whisper fears, doubts, and insecurities to.
The following excerpt comes from in the aftermath of a battle against invaders from the rival city-state of Andivel. The battle results in victory, Viarra leading an archer unit, drawing her sword and rallying the phalanx when the lines break. She stays strong during the combat and in the face of so many deaths, despite this being her first battle. After the battle, when her people are celebrating, she’s nowhere to be found…
Just after sunset, Elissa found her queen sitting on the garrison building’s westernmost rampart, looking out past the walls at the battlefield. Beyond the battlefield, dozens of funeral pyres burned where the Andivelians gave final rites to their dead. Her majesty sat alone, wearing a dark-green dress and hugging her knees to her chest. Below them they could hear the sound of citizens and soldiers celebrating the day’s victory.
“Majesty?” Elissa inquired softly as she approached.
Queen Viarra didn’t reply, but moved aside to make room for Elissa to sit.
The handmaid padded over and sat down next to her mistress between two crenellations. Elissa was shocked to find her lady weeping. Queen Viarra gazed out over the battlefield, tears running softly down her face. The handmaid remained silent, stunned at the display of emotion from her iron-willed ruler.
“Hold me,” was Viarra’s only instruction. And so Elissa did, wrapping one arm around her beloved’s shoulders and tucking her majesty’s head to her breast with the other. The young queen began sobbing softly and shaking after several moments. There seemed little point in speaking as Elissa held her love close, feeling teardrops dampening the front of her dress.
Thanks for reading, folks!