Character Creation part 3: Elissa
Elissa is the favorite slave, closest handmaid, and oldest friend of First Empress‘s title character, Queen Viarraluca. Taken from her people in the north as a child and sold into slavery, at seven years old Elissa was given as a servant and companion to the five-year-old Princess Viarra. In the story’s prologue Elissa is the only surviving handmaid in an attack on the King’s estate, just as Viarra is the only surviving member of the royal family. Despite having no combat training, the handmaid feels guilty over the fact that the queen ends up critically wounded defending both of them from the assassins. After the attack, Elissa begins training to fight in order to protect her majesty in the future.
Elissa is probably the character who has given me the most to think about and the most decisions to make. Early on I was writing a scene for chapter 2, where Elissa is training to fight so she can learn to protect her queen, when I realized that some of the young handmaid’s feelings for her queen really kind of bordered on lust. While I have no objection to lesbianism, the realization kind of startled me because it was completely unintended. And while I could go back in and perhaps tone those feelings down, I don’t think I want to. I think I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of Elissa being completely in love with her queen, but not feeling worthy of that love.
This leaves me with a lot of interesting decisions in terms of character development and the overall direction of the relationship between the queen and handmaid. First off, Queen Viarraluca is easily the most perceptive and intuitive character in the story: I can’t imagine that she is unaware of Elissa’s feelings for her. So I’m kind of trying to figure out what the queen will do about it. As a slave and servant, Elissa doesn’t seem like the sort to share her feelings for her mistress, and is even less likely to attempt to initiate such a relationship. Equally complicating is the fact that the queen will eventually be expected to marry in order to (a) cement a political alliance with another kingdom or city state and (b) produce an heir to her throne—and I fully intend to have the queen bear a son later in the story.
There’s always the option that the queen does nothing or has some ‘let’s just stay friends’ talk with the Elissa—some middle-of-the-road option where they stay close friends and Elissa continues lusting privately. This strikes me as one of the less interesting options, however. Another possibility is that something does happen between them, but they decide to avoid future complications by pretending it didn’t happen. On top of feeling very sitcom-ish, this doesn’t fit well with Queen Viarra’s character. Her majesty doesn’t do anything by accident—she is the hyper-intelligent sort who’s always in charge of every situation she is in. Losing control in a moment of passion feels entirely out of character.
On the other hand, I find myself presented with an entirely different set of dilemmas if Queen Viarra does in fact share Elissa’s passion. First off, if queen and handmaid are truly in love, why have they not acted on these feelings prior to the story’s opening? I’ve thought of several reasons, most of them relating to politics and the queen’s duty to her people, but I can’t come up with a reason those might suddenly go away, allowing my protagonists to be together. Additionally, one key plot point is that Queen Viarra receives an arcane device that gives her eternal youth (identical to the one Zahnia has). Elissa does not have such a gift. Thus eventually Elissa dies and the queen must go on without her. Does then the queen have to watch her love grow old and die, knowing that she can’t grow old and die with her? Or does Elissa get taken from her sooner? Perhaps by assassination or shipwreck or even death in combat?
Every time I think of a resolution, I think of reasons my resolution won’t work. Or at least won’t work as well as I’d like.
The following excerpt is from a scene from chapter 2.
Elissa set her shield and helm next to the near wall and sat with her majesty on one of the benches. “I wish I had time to help you train,” Viarra said as Elissa doffed her sweaty hoplite armor.
“I wish I’d learned back when General Derron and Captain Kellor were teaching you,” Elissa replied, setting her armor aside. “But I suspect that would have been harder to hide from your father than you teaching me to read.”
Her majesty laughed. “I suspect you’re right,” the tall queen agreed. “And I think teaching you to use a sword would have raised more objections from Father than if we’d gotten caught reading steamy romance stories together.”
“I miss that,” Elissa admitted, her heart feeling weighed down with the nostalgia. She laughed as a thought came to her. “If things ever calm down around here, we should do that again sometime. We should sneak off by ourselves with just a blanket and a couple smutty adventure scrolls.”
“And a jug of wine,” the queen sighed, closing her eyes. “No war… no worries… no politics… just you and me reading aloud in funny voices and giggling at the overwrought prose and unrealistic sex scenes.”
Elissa laid her head on Viarra’s shoulder. “So there is going to be a war,” the handmaiden said quietly.
The queen nodded, laying her head against the top of Elissa’s. “We have at least two weeks, but there’s no question it’s coming. We’ll have to be ready.”
“Will you fight in the battle?” Elissa asked, though she was pretty sure of the answer.
“I intend to,” the queen said. “I’d prefer to fight on the front line beside the hoplites, but all three of my military advisers made me compromise on that. I’ll be leading a detachment of archers instead.”
“May I fight beside you?”
“If you wish. Can you shoot a bow?”
“No, but as you said I have at least two weeks to learn.”
“Start spending your downtime out on the archery range,” her majesty suggested. “Kellor and I will be too busy to instruct you, but I’ll bet you can find some of the yeomen archers who’d be happy to teach you. May I ask why you want to be part of the battle so badly?”
“I want to save your life someday,” Elissa answered, feeling tears in her eyes. It wasn’t a rational answer, but it was a sincere one.
Queen Viarra sat up and turned toward her handmaid. Elissa looked up to see tears in her majesty’s eyes but laugher in her smile. The queen brushed a lock of hair out of her friend’s eyes, then leaned in and embraced her. In return Elissa wrapped her arms around the woman she loved and lay her head on her shoulder. The handmaid held her queen close, loving the feel of those statuesque curves through their tunics and hoping her desire wasn’t obvious.
Part of Elissa treasured that embrace as if it was the rarest gem. Part of her wanted it to be something more. No part of her believed she was worthy of either.