He bowed deeply, with a flourish of his feathered cap. The prince cried excitedly, “Is it time?” The painter replied, “The light is very flattering at this time of day. The others have taken position.” The prince went to the yellow room, which served as a studio. It was a large room, to accommodate all the courtesans. He changed into flowing red robes. They were creating an intimate yet daring portrait, though following the rules of the day. The king’s emblems were discreetly alluded to, his crown and scepter discarded on a settee. A bathtub was in the background, his lover of the time still in it, a coiled white towel on his head, another draped on half the tub on which he reclined. The poor boy was shivering, the water having cooled off while they all waited for the prince’s arrival. The prince’s tame tiger lay on the floor, between royalty and the boy, a symbol of strength and dominion. He was enormous, well-fed, chained to the bath’s cat paw, a royal motif in vogue at the time. The prince struck a pose, holding an ornate mirror, his powdered wig just so, his valet strengthening the folds into elegant whorls. “Music,” commanded the prince.
The quartet started playing, the painter painting, and a hush fell on those assembled. The scene was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. They were used to the prince’s eccentricities but this latest one was beyond understanding. It was to be a surprise for the Queen, and a surprise it would be. Of course she knew of the lover, her son was none too discreet, but they would still get an heir out of him yet. The traditional elements of a royal painting were all there, though subverted. It was Dali before Dali, a hint of the Revolution before it happened, colonialism, decadence all wrapped in one. With a frisson, they wondered if the painter would be put to death for creating such a grotesque, yet oddly engaging, portrait. It was close to finished. Clearly the painter and the prince were enjoying their work, and seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent to the deed.
“The king!” announced a guardsman, and everyone’s attention shifted to the door. He came in with a huff. “What is that you are painting? Bring it over.” The paint was still wet and concern could be read on the painter’s features. He motioned to his assistants, explaining in urgent tones where to hold the frame to avoid smudges or dropping it. The assistants walked uneasily towards the king, dropping to their knees as they came closer. The guardsman put his spear in front of them and they stopped a few meters from the king. A wide grin relaxed his features. He looked at the painter and made a cutting gesture at his throat. The painter paled, close to fainting. “My king, you don’t like it?” asked the prince, offended. “Amid all this nonsense, the painter had the good grace of making you look healthy,” he replied. This was the royal painter. He always fleshed out the skinny to make them look healthy. He had added a double chin to the lanky prince, and given him the required haughty air. “Your queen will be pleased,” he added, turning away with his retinue.
“We’re done for the day,” said the prince, his good mood vanished. His lover wrapped himself in the large towel and got out of the bath covered in goosebumps. A maidservant toweled him energetically, to get the blood flowing again, lest he catch cold. The king’s visit had put a damper on the gathering. “I’m hungry,” exclaimed the prince. “Get me a snack.” The order was relayed and a long table set up in the green room. The meal was an elaborate affair, the wine flowed and the music mused. The prince’s frown melted as his companion made him laugh. The painter and his assistants did not join in the revelry. The painter had taken his leave and had the painting shipped to his apartments in the palace. He felt trapped. This was his best work but nobody understood it. He was a modernist, creating what passed for extravagant and amusing art, but it was very serious to him. He agonized over his compositions.
He knew the prince well, since his childhood, and this portrait captured his essence – he was sensual, authoritarian, vain and shrewd. He wanted to please and shock. He also wanted the throne and its power. He acted like a spoiled brat but was far from it. He just did not want to appear as a threat. The painting was calculated to destabilize and engross, but he may have miscalculated. The prince might not hesitate to throw him under the cart or have the painting destroyed. The painter slept fitfully, the painting at the foot of his bed. He woke up several times during the night, afraid when he heard steps coming his way. He had resolved to steal away with the painting, to live as a destitute, rather than seeing it or himself destroyed.
The thunder of feet he had heard in the night was not meant for him, however. Messengers from all over the country had been coming in, bearing bad news. An invasion was imminent. The painting was forgotten as troops were raised in earnest. It was time, yet again, for war.