Originally, it meant an attendant to a ruler, someone “of the court”, but these days it wears something different than the stately robes of a courtier–something slinky and red, maybe. When you hear the word, what do you see? Maybe a geisha, face painted ivory-white. Maybe a woman in an powdered wig, hiding a wicked grin behind a painted fan. Maybe a blond in a mink coat, simpering on the arm of an older man.
How about a beautiful young man?
Over the course of The Adorned, Etan, the beautiful young man in question, becomes a part of an elite class of tattooed courtesans–the playthings and objets d’art of a semi-divine aristocracy. Some of his patrons appreciate him solely for the decorative, near-magical art that he wears on his skin, but to be sure he’s expected to fulfill other duties as well.
Adorned are somewhere between living canvases and high-class escorts, and they can be both male and female–I knew that when I first started writing. I wanted to see what a courtesan class might look like in a world where the lines between gender roles are bit more permeable than they were in, say, Elizabethan England or Ancien Régime France.
Of course, it wasn’t quite a serious exploration of gender roles that I was after; more than anything, I just wanted to tell a good story. And I’ve got my shallow reasons, as well: I’m rather fond of good-looking guys, covered in tattoos or not. But there was something fascinating going on, I thought, and it kept cropping up here and there.
In the first draft of The Adorned, there were a few characters who I didn’t like very much–they were flat, stereotyped, wooden. In the rewrite, I upended their gender…and suddenly they came to life. Even today, our minds will often automatically assign a gender to ostensibly neutral words–words like housekeeper, nurse, cook, and, of course, courtesan–and when you flip that expectation, things can get pretty interesting.
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THE ADORNED by John Tristan
BLURB: My name is Etan, and I am Adorned.
A living piece of art, I exist to please the divine rulers of Kered. With nowhere to turn after my father died, I tried my luck in the capital city. Little did I know how quickly I would be robbed, beaten and forced to sell myself into servitude. But I was lucky enough to gain the attention of Roberd Tallisk, an irascible but intriguing tattoo artist who offered to mark me with enchanted ink for the enjoyment of the nobles. I was given a chance to better my station in life, and I could not refuse.
But the divine rulers want not only the art but the body that bears it. In their company I can rise above the dregs of society and experience a life most only dream of, at the cost of suffering their every desire as a pawn in games of lavish intrigue. Their attention is flattering, but I find I’d rather have Tallisk’s.
Caught between factions, I learn that a revolution is brewing, one that could ruin Kered—and Roberd and myself along with it…
The date of the feast had been set for a week hence. A single day after the contract had been negotiated, one of the Count’s servants had brought us the news, along with our display-clothes. Those had been brought in lovely wooden boxes, which we were casually informed we could keep as gifts, and wrapped in thin tissue-paper.
The paper was blue and white, the colors of Karan’s house, and soft as silk. With Isadel’s he had sent a silver pomander. It fell out of the folds, unremarked upon, as she unwrapped it, regarding his choice with a businesslike expression. It was a long skirt of crimson velvet, slit high to the hip. She held it up. “Well, it’s a good thing the flame on my stomach’s finished now. This will expose it for sure.”
We were in the dining room, which was empty save for the two of us and the two boxes on the table. Yana and Doiran were busy with their own work, and Tallisk could not be disturbed to fuss over our clothes, so Isadel took the task of it in hand. I looked over her shoulder at the skirt. I could see no other clothing in the empty box. “Are you to wear no, uh, no…”
She laid the skirt back in the box, careful of its delicate seams. “No, of course not. We don’t get hired to cover our Adornments.”
“Still,” I said, “you would never see a woman in the street so bare.”
“Well, no, but she would have nothing to show, Etan. When we do our work well, no one sees our bodies as bared flesh. We are moving art.”
I chewed this over. “Count Karan—”
“Count Karan,” she said, “might be our patron, but he is not who I bare my Adornments for. He has us made because it is…the done thing, not because he is a connoisseur of art.”
I traced my fingers over the lacquered top of my box. I had not yet opened it; I half feared to. “Do you know what he asked? What the Count asked of me?”
“Yes. I know.” She closed her box with a snap.
My mouth had gone dry. I bit my lip. “Do you know what he expects of me?”
“Yes, Etan,” she said, more gently. “He asked the same thing of me.”
“Was it—was he—?” My face felt furnace hot.
She shrugged. “It —he—is tolerable enough.” A quick grin lit her face. “Sometimes, it can even be a pleasant diversion. But don’t dwell on it so much; your true work is the display. His Grace may not appreciate the art as much as the skin it’s inked on, but be sure that his friends have eyes.”
Would you like to win a free copy of The Adorned? Leave your e-mail address and your preferred format (PDF or epub) in the comments … and, if you’d like, what sort of design you’d want tattooed on you if you were one of the Adorned! The giveaway will end on August 20th, when the winner will receive their book.
About the Author
John is a Transatlantic nerd currently living near Manchester; when he’s not writing about sexy men in strange worlds having adventures and falling in love, he’s probably reading, playing video games or changing the cat tray.