Sarrica stared at the list he'd found buried in the bottom of Allen's desk. Allen might be able to hide his every thought from the High Court and every foreign dignitary to step foot in Harken, but after nearly ruining their relationship before it could begin, Sarrica wasn't as easy to fool. Allen had been brooding over something for the past few weeks, frustratingly elusive whenever Sarrica asked what was wrong—and while he vastly preferred to pin Allen down, literally if necessary, and extract the information once and for all…
Well, sometimes it was easier to resort to less direct methods. Like waiting until Allen was locked in an hours' long meeting then ordering everyone out of the office so he could snoop.
He hadn't expected a list of names. Innocuous enough on the surface, but something about them nagged. It wasn't until he remembered Lady Tanna had been a friend of Nyle's that the pieces had fallen into place.
It was a list of men and women willing to serve as sire or dame to other nobles. While not a requirement that nobles work with other nobles in such things, fairly often it was simply easier to do so.
Sarrica rested his mouth against the backs of his fingers, elbow braced on the desk, as he regarded the list and let his thoughts tumble about.
He had not anticipated that Allen would want children of his own. It had not been a stipulation of the marriage, and he was so young and had waited so long to finally enjoy the life he'd been trained for, Sarrica had assumed he was perfectly content with matters as they were. Since Sarrica already had two children, there was no pressing need for them, either, so he hadn't thought much about it, as much as he enjoyed tending Kamir and Tara. He'd assumed Allen wasn't thinking about it at all.
Clearly he'd been wrong.
Fingers still pressed to his lips, Sarrica tapped his thumb against the corner of his mouth. It was painfully obvious Allen did not want him to know. But why? It was an idea he'd dismissed outright, but not because he would be opposed.
No, the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. Maybe he was being a possessive ass again, but he liked the idea of imperial children with Allen's blood.
Though he didn't much care for the options Allen had so far compiled. To judge by the numerous names already crossed off, Allen wasn't liking them either. But for all that Allen was infinitely better with people than Sarrica on most days… in this one matter, Sarrica sensed experience gave him an edge.
He looked at the names which had not been crossed out.
Lord Hemreth. Too ambitious and greedy; he'd abuse the role of imperial sire.
Lady Viola. Too controlling, would not be able to surrender the parental rights Sarrica would insist on.
Lady Temniss. Should not even still be on the list, not when she'd been left so weak after the last child she'd born. Sarrica made a mental note to speak to her about it—or have a strong word with Temniss's over-ambitious wife if that was the reason she was still on the list, which he suspected it was.
Lord Anla, no. Lord Yesti, Pantheon no. And the remaining six were no better.
Sarrica carefully restored it to the place he'd found it in Allen's desk and went to bid his secretaries return—pointedly ignoring the knowing look Myra gave him.
Huffing faintly in amused exasperation, Myra only gathered up papers for him to sign and pointed a finger at Sarrica's desk.
Thankfully the papers were easily read over and signed, various things that needed his approval to arrange for the coming summer festival.
"Your Majesty," Myra interrupted. "Someone here to see you."
Sarrica looked up immediately, the fond amusement in Myra's tone catching him more than anything. Working with Myra was much like working with Lesto: he knew Sarrica far too well.
Across the room, six months pregnant and flushed from exertion, Kamir smiled shyly and bowed as best he could in his awkward state. "Merry morning, Your Majesty."
"Sit down, sit down," Sarrica said, surging up from his desk to cross the room and escort Kamir across to the sitting area. "Myra—"
"I've already had tea ordered, Majesty."
He smiled briefly then turned back to Kamir. "How are you feeling?"
"I am starting to reach that point where I wish this was over with," Kamir said with a laugh, his bright eyes softening any true complaint in his words. "You do not need to fuss over me, Your Majesty. We're doing quite well."
A soft 'ha' came from the vicinity of Myra's desk, but when Sarrica cast a look over his shoulder Myra was focused on handing bundles of papers off to the other secretaries.
Turning back to Kamir, Sarrica brought over a footstool and helped him to prop his feet up, shoving a table closer to his chair so he'd have it to rest his tea on. "What brings you to see me today?" he said, finally sitting down in the nearby matching chair, stretching his legs out in front of him, arms sprawling across the heavy rests.
"I came to visit with Tara and see how he and his child were doing. Lesto was there and said I should speak with you." He spread his hands. "He refused to say about what."
Sarrica lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "I don't know how he is always six steps ahead of the rest of us in these matters, but I am no longer surprised. But yes, now that he's said it, you would in fact be the perfect assistant in my scheming."
Kamir's brows rose, surprise filling his face as it always did when… well, they treated him like one of the group. Like a friend. But then sometimes when he thought no one was paying him any mind, Kamir stared at his engagement ring like he could not believe it was there. Like it was going to be snatched away at any moment.
And while Kamir might not enjoy the fresh surge of gossip, the rest of them were not nearly so mature. The only person who more enjoyed seeing the court froth with frustration and jealousy over Kamir's engagement was Jader, who took every opportunity to rub it in all the faces he could.
The tea came then, and Sarrica promptly stood to fix Kamir's tea himself and pile a small plate high with Kamir's favorites. Once everything was arranged on the table where he could easily reach and manage it all, Sarrica fixed his own cup.
Smiling shyly, Kamir murmured his thanks and took several sips of tea. "So tell me what scheming I'm assisting in, Your Majesty. Is this going to get me in trouble with my betrothed? His Majesty?"
"No, no risk of trouble for you, I promise." Sarrica glanced across the room and gestured sharply to Myra, who dismissed all the other secretaries. When the door was closed, only the three of them remaining, Sarrica said, "Has Allen mentioned anything to you about fathering children?"
Kamir paused in taking a sip of tea, setting the cup back in his lap. He tilted his head slightly, then smiled faintly. "No, Your Majesty, not explicitly, but I admit he makes all the noises of someone considering it—someone, too, who thinks he's going unnoticed considering it."
Sarrica pinched the bridge of his nose. "Am the last one to notice this?"
A burst of giggles escaped before Kamir clapped a hand over his mouth, but the mirth sparkling in his eye was unhindered.
"I see," Sarrica said with a sigh. "But he has not spoken with you, you said. Or anyone else you're aware of?"
"No, he's not spoken to anyone that I'm aware," Kamir said. "I do not often see His Majesty out of depth, but I suspect that is how he feels right now, given his thoughts show at all in the matter. Did you want me to try speaking with him?"
Sarrica shook his head. "No, I want you to help me find more suitable candidates for sire or dame than are on the list he thinks I don't know about."
"What names are on the list?" Kamir asked, and wrinkled his nose or shook his head at every name Sarrica rattled off. "They do all qualify, but I agree they do not suit you or His Majesty."
"You can use our names," Sarrica reminded him idly. "My children obey you, which is something even I cannot always manage, so I think you can use our names. Refuse and I'll start in with how often I see you distract my High Commander."
Kamir flushed. "I feel somehow you are cheating."
"I think it's High King arrogance, though I suppose that could count as cheating," Sarrica replied. "So will you help me?"
"Of course, though I don't see why you do not simply speak with His—Allen and work the matter out between the two of you."
"I like surprises."
Kamir peered at him, and Sarrica could so easily see in that earnest, attentive look why Jader was so enamored. "You're hurt."
Sarrica shrugged. "Flummoxed would be more accurate."
Smiling soft and sweet and entirely too understanding, Kamir finished his tea and set it aside. "Give me a couple of days and I will have a list for you. One strong candidate comes immediately to mind, but I'd rather give you a few options."
"Thank you. Don't even think of trying to leave until you've eaten all the food on that plate."
Kamir huffed but picked up the plate and obediently ate. Sarrica poured him another cup of tea. He was just coaxing Kamir into drinking it when the door opened and Allen walked in, followed by Jader and Jac.
Jader's face brightened as he saw Kamir, and he promptly abandoned whatever conversation he'd been having with Allen to cross the room and drop a kiss on Kamir's mouth. "I thought you said you would spend most of the day resting."
"I promise I've done more sitting than walking," Kamir said. "I cannot tell who is worse: you or Sarrica."
"Sarrica," Allen and Myra said together.
Ignoring them both, Sarrica gave Kamir a look and gestured at the tea.
Not quite lifting his eyes to the ceiling, Kamir drank the tea.
"You're out of that meeting far earlier than I thought you would be," Sarrica said, taking Allen's hand as he approached and pressing a lingering kiss to his knuckles. "That well or that poorly?"
"That poorly, but with the way I left their ears ringing I have every faith the second attempt tomorrow will be more successful. What have you been doing?" He bent to give Sarrica a brief, soft kiss, and oh the things Sarrica would rather be doing right then.
"Not enough signing," Myra said as he approached with a stack of paper and dropped them on Sarrica's lap.
Sarrica sighed and accepted the pen Myra offered. "If I give you another raise will you harass me less?"
"Give me a raise and we'll find out, Your Majesty."
Allen snickered and took some of the paperwork before settling on the sofa. Jac poured him a cup of tea then took her usual spot standing near the bookcases. She was still too young for the role in Sarrica's mind, but so far had proven to be damned good at her job—and he had a hard time saying no to anything that made Allen happy, and Allen was extremely fond of Jac.
Shaking off his meandering thoughts, dumping the paperwork on the table with the tea try, he looked at Jader. "What brings you here?"
"I had a note that I was to come review paperwork for the festival."
"That's probably in this pile." Sarrica sighed and retrieved the stack, rifling through it long enough to search out the forms. "Ah, here they are. Why couldn't we just send these to his office, Myra?"
"Because then I'd never get them back."
Jader laughed and took the papers, sitting on the armrest of Kamir's chair as he started reading through and signing everything.
Half an hour later Sarrica finally let Kamir leave, with admonishments he eat and rest often.
"It's sweet how you fuss," Allen said, rising from the sofa and gathering Sarrica's half of the paperwork together with his own, handing the whole off to the secretary who came bustling over to take it all.
Sarrica reached out and snagged his hand, drew it close to kiss first the knuckles and then the palm, enjoying the hint of mint that clung to Allen's skin, remnants of a lotion he favored when his hands got dry. "I think you should know better than most that I like to spoil the people closest to me."
"You barely knew Kamir's name a few months ago," Allen replied with a laugh, and didn't protest when Sarrica drew him into his lap, despite the secretaries and clerks bustling around the rest of the office. "Were you unbearable when your children were just born?"
"Oh, I was unbearable long before that point." Sarrica made a face. "Nyle hated everyone and everything by the end." Had often wanted even Sarrica to get out and leave him alone. Sarrica had hated seeing him so miserable, and hated that he had somehow failed to at least be a source of comfort to Nyle. Sometimes he wished he'd pushed harder at using a dame, but it had been Nyle's choice. "Between Nyle hating me and half the court loudly baffled that I was not a complete halfwit about the matter, unbearable was putting it mildly."
Allen frowned, but only stroked the scars on Sarrica's cheeks before leaning in to kiss, soft and lingering. "I can't see why anyone would be surprised by anything but you not being a doting, spoiling spouse and father."
"I think you appreciate better than most that I excel at saying and doing the wrong thing."
"I appreciate better than most you always have the best of intentions," Allen said. "Even when I was angry with you about Kamir and the imperial order, I appreciated you'd meant well."
Sarrica smiled and kissed him again, then gently pushed Allen off his lap again. "Back to work before I drag you away and Myra kills us both."
At his desk, Myra smiled faintly but did not look up from whatever he was writing.
Sighing, Sarrica hauled to his feet and returned to his own desk, forcing himself to tuck away the matter of Allen and children for the moment and focus on the teetering piles before him.
Genna looked up, startled, at the sound of someone gently clearing their throat—and stared uncomprehending at Lord Kamir. Who had certainly blossomed since being swept up by the High Commander. Even several months pregnant, obviously tired and feeling the strain, he seemed to shine in a way he never had before. "Good day, my lord. Did you need something?" She closed the journal she'd been writing in and set it aside, folding her hands in her lap to keep from smoothing out the folds of her gown.
"Good day, my lady. I am sorry to interrupt you, but I come on behalf of His Majesty the High King and wondered if you might be willing to speak with me for a short time."
"The High King?" Why in the world would the High King be interested in her? She was a minor widowed Countess from a largely ignored corner of Delfaste. The most exciting aspect of her life were the erotic pin novels she wrote under a penname. She had a respectable income, respectable reputation, well-behaved children… and absolutely nothing of note to the High King. "But of course I am always happy to accommodate His Majesty. Shall we go somewhere more comfortable than a stone bench?"
"I have no problems with stone benches," Kamir replied, eyes gleaming. "No matter what my betrothed and His Majesty say otherwise."
Genna chuckled. "You have certainly set the court to whispering, my lord. Half say you seduced your way into the High Commander's bed and then used a baby to secure a marriage, half the court says you and the High King had an affair and you're being married to the High Commander to hide that fact."
Kamir threw his head back and laughed, and wasn't that a sight to behold. She knew Kamir only by reputation and seeing him around the palace, but only months ago such gossip would have made him run and hide, not set him to laughing himself silly. "Are those the best rumors they can come up with? The High Court isn't very original anymore."
"That implies they were ever original, which is overgenerous." She leaned down and retrieved the large flask she always brought with her when she hid outside to get some writing done. "Honey ginger tea, if you would like some, my lord."
"I appreciate it," Kamir replied, and took several sips.
Capping the flask as he handed it back, she asked, "So why in the Pantheon would His Majesty have you speak to me? Did one of my children do something? They're normally well-behaved, but they are reaching an age where even gods would not be able to make them biddable…"
"Nothing to do with your children, though children are the reason for this discussion," Kamir said. "Their Majesties are seeking someone to bear the High Consort's children."
Genna's jaw dropped, the flask falling into her lap. "Are you asking if I will be their dame? Me? I'm not even on the registered list—or any list for that matter." She was nothing. No one. Not good. Not bad. Just… there. A good fourth child who'd made a good marriage and provided two good children. When her husband had died, she'd mourned for several months then dutifully carried on like a good widow.
Thinking of Kahn still hurt even now. The ache was old and faded, but never gone. They'd not been the madly, wildly in love sort, but they'd been loving and happy.
She'd been a good daughter, a good wife, and now a good mother and widow. But good also often meant forgettable—and someone like the High King and the High Consort would want their dame to be remarkable, not forgettable. Was this all some sort of twisted joke?
"That is precisely what I am asking," Kamir said.
"I don't understand. Why me?"
"It was my idea, to be honest," Kamir replied. "We never crossed paths, not directly, but my children knew yours and spoke often of them. When we moved to live in the city, yours were the only children they missed playing with. You have an excellent reputation, are well-known for being practical and level-headed. And of course you've already had children, and I think if you gave birth to His Majesty's children you would be the sort capable of surrendering parental rights and such."
She was being chosen because she was boring. Was she flattered or offended? Well, it was what it was. "I've considered becoming a dame before, but it's not always the child-bearers who have trouble separating when the matter is over, and I do not want to bring that sort of trouble into my home. I'm also not interested in a permanent arrangement, which many want."
"Which to my thinking is just one more reason you're eminently suitable for Their Majesties," Kamir replied. "You would have to be comfortable with both of them being present, even though it's only the High Consort's children you'll be bearing."
Genna smiled as she turned to look out over the flower garden. Yes, she could see where neither of those two would want to do such a thing without both of them there. The High King and his Golden Tongue were too enamored of each other to be apart for something so intimate and important.
And oh, didn't she just like the image of herself in the middle of that. The last time she'd had anyone in her bed, it had been a woman equally disinterested in anything but a tumble or three, and that had been a couple of years ago. A perfectly good, respectable week-long affair.
God, she was so boring sometimes she practically put herself to sleep.
"Are you completely disinterested in the idea, my lady?"
Genna turned back to Kamir, pursed her lips. "Disinterested? No, I do not think so. But it's a question that requires some thinking. How soon must I provide an answer?"
"There's no rush," Kamir replied. "The High King also wanted me to stress that if you change your mind at any point—well any point before natural processes can be reversed—you of course may and nothing will be held against you."
"If I ever doubted that was true, the conversation would not have lasted this long," Genna replied. "Let me think upon the matter for a few days, my lord. Shall I contact you when I've made my decision?"
Kamir nodded and rose. "Yes, you can send it to my office, and if I'm not there my secretary, Niale, will send it on to me wherever I am. Should you wish to consider the offer, I'll arrange a meeting with the High King for you to discuss it further."
Genna frowned. "Just the High King?"
"There are details he will discuss with you," Kamir replied. "Thank you for listening, and even considering, my lady."
"It's an honor, my lord." She rose and bowed as he departed.
When he'd gone, she gathered up her things to return to her chambers. Certainly she would not be getting any further into the torrid affair of a priest who was secretly a princess, hiding from her evil father, and desperately sought by her betrothed and his bodyguard, who were soon going to find her and do very inappropriate things on the temple altar.
Snickering in anticipation of eventually writing the scene, she stuffed everything into her satchel and started walking.
Halfway to her room, she was distracted by the sound of familiar laughter, and paused to look through an open set of doorways to where High Consort Allen sat chatting with several other people—foreigners, by the look of them, some in strange clothes, others wearing Harken-style clothing in that awkward way all foreigners did. What they were speaking, she couldn't say, though she thought perhaps it was Bentan.
Her gaze lingered on the High Consort, noting him in ways she never really had before, because it had always been so impossible it had never even become a thought. Even as others gossiped lewdly about what happened in the imperial bedroom, she'd done little more than steal ideas for her books.
Allen was beautiful, there was no denying or missing that beautiful, gold-toned skin or the brilliant blond hair. Even when it had been military short, it had been remarkable, and against all that gold his vivid blue eyes shone. He was always dressed impeccably, his jewelry incomparable.
More than that, though, he was kind, and even when he had to be firm—or even harsh—he struck as minimal a blow as he was able. His closest friends were those the rest of the court considered too strange—even Lord Kamir, who for so many years had been the High Court embarrassment.
Now that someone had put the idea of bedding him into her head, it was not an easy idea to dislodge again. Especially if bedding Allen meant bedding Sarrica. Genna shivered. She'd always been perfectly happy, if occasionally a little bored, with her good life and naughty books.
But she couldn't deny that the chance to live a little bit like her books, even if the ultimate purpose was to bear the High Consort a child or two, held unexpected appeal.
And she was, as Kamir had said, far too practical to ignore all the other benefits that came with being not just a dame, but the imperial dame. She could put the monetary compensation to good use, and there were always additional boons and gifts that came with such a duty. Bearing a child was not an easy or brief affair, and dames and sires were always well-paid for doing so.
Pantheon, she was going to have to tell her mother. Her parents lived all the way to the south of Delfaste, but Genna had every faith her mother would still find a way to show up mere hours after reading the letter.
Well, apparently she'd made her decision. Or at least her libido had made one.
Turning away, Genna resumed the walk to her room, giving her mind a chance to think more thoroughly and logically than her body.
Three days later she was sitting in a private meeting room trying not to smooth down the folds of her scarlet gown for the hundredth time. Normally she did not wear so much of such a bold color, but if she was going to do this wild, not-boring thing, then she was going to look the part. Well, as much the part as a boring, widowed mother could. But according to her late husband, red looked stunning against her black-brown skin. Very stunning.
Fool she might be, she hoped Their Majesties agreed. She wanted the arrangement to be fun for all of them.
The door opened and Genna startled, nearly jumping out of her seat instead of rising smoothly as the High King entered the room. She'd never been so close to him. He was even bigger and more commanding up close.
Her breath hitched slightly as he drew close enough to extend a hand, and she hoped hers didn't tremble as she rose from a deep bow and offered it. He bowed over her knuckles, and smiled warmly. "Lady Genna, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Thank you for considering my offer."
"Your Majesty." She waited until he sat and motioned for her to do the same, wondering if that brief, sweeping glance he gave her was filled with approval or if that was wishful thinking. "I am flattered you would consider me for such an honor."
Sarrica chuckled as he set down the papers he'd been holding and poured himself a cup of wine. "I promise it will not take long before you consider it more trial than honor." He set the wine down and turned somber, moss-green eyes intent upon her. "Let me be blunt: this will affect the rest of your life. You will always be the woman who carried my consort's child or children. You will always be a viable target for kidnapping or other harm. The chances are extremely small you would be used thus against us, but the chance does exist. And I do not need to explain to a courtier all the travails you will endure from the High Court."
"No, I am well aware of what I will be subjected to on that front," Genna said wryly. "I did, too, consider the other risks—heavily. I do not want to put my children or relatives in danger, but as you said, the risk is minimal. I am willing to chance it, and face the other long-term effects of the position." She smiled faintly, refusing to let shyness get the better of her. "So let's talk terms, Your Majesty."
Mouth curving, eyes lighting with approval, Sarrica picked up the papers he'd set aside earlier and offered them. "This is only a rough draft of basic terms, to give you an idea of what will be expected. Once we've worked out the details, and Allen approves the matter, we'll draft the final version to be signed and filed."
Genna nodded and accepted the papers, setting them in her lap to read through—and nearly knocked them to her floor in shock. "Does this say fifty thousand crowns."
Sarrica's brows rose. "Yes. That seemed fair for a two-year contract with a provision of adding a third year."
"The standard is half my yearly income for each year of the contract, and half again in holding for the provision," Genna replied. Her income was a relatively modest twenty thousand crowns a year. More than sufficient even for someone who lived in the imperial palace full time, but far below what some other Houses made. The contract should be for twenty thousand crowns, with five thousand held in reserve for the provision.
Shrugging, Sarrica replied, "It seems fair given your life will be vastly more complicated as an imperial dame than it would be as a noble dame or even a royal dame."
Genna had no idea how to begin to reply to that. She was accustomed to handling large sums of money, but even she was not so casual as Sarrica appeared to be. But then, the man had more personal wealth than the whole of the court, no doubt, and he must also be aware of what the empire itself had in funds. Of course he had no concept of money.
She resumed reading. Fifty thousand crowns, with ten thousand paid upon signing and hers to keep no matter what happened. Upon conceiving, another ten thousand, also hers to keep no matter what happened, unless she was found to have purposely avoided pregnancy or aborted the baby—a not unheard of scam with less reputable dames and sires, and one of the many things Sarrica had changed the laws on, ensuring the punishments were much, much harsher than they had been.
The parental rights were next, and what she had expected: she was permitted to be involved in their lives if she chose, or could walk away completely with no obligation, but full legal custody went to Allen and Sarrica. The children would be aware of who their dame was, they were not in favor of keeping that information private—but the point was negotiable if she insisted.
Moving on, the next clause was on privacy, and probably the most important part of the contract. This was why she would become a target for anyone seeking to harm the High Throne. As their dame, she'd be privy to a great many details of their lives—highly personal details not known by anyone else. The penalties laid out were enough to turn her hair gray, save that she'd never had a problem with keeping her mouth shut.
The rest was rather mundane and straightforward.
All that remained were the non-monetary compensations, which were optional but usually included as it was regarded as crass, cheap, and simply rude not to offer additional 'gifts'. Though she was being paid so much, it seemed at best presumptuous to expect more.
"All seems in order to me, Your Majesty. I would like to be involved in the child's life, though minimally. I happily leave all parenting up to you and the High Consort. Your compensation is more than generous. The rest is simple enough. It's a generous contract."
"I can think of at least twelve people who would call it shoddy work at best and demand twice the money, along with six houses and a winery or three," Sarrica said, and finished off his glass of wine. "You are as refreshingly practical and reasonable as promised."
Those words had never sounded so much like a compliment. Genna's face warmed and she looked back down at the papers to avoid staring at Sarrica like a flustered youth new to court. "Reasonable tends to go further than extravagant, in such matters," she finally murmured.
Setting the papers aside and finally taking a sip of her own wine, Genna said, "Speaking of reasonable and practical, why isn't His Majesty part of this discussion?"
Smiling wryly, Sarrica said, "That requires a bit of explaining, and confidentiality."
"You have it, of course," Genna replied. "I'll sign the contract now, if it will reassure you. I came here today with my mind made up. I've seen nothing to compel me to change it."
He smiled. "You are very refreshing, my lady."
Another word not usually meant as a compliment, or at least it was akin to 'passable looks' and 'adequate'. But when Sarrica said it, she could see he meant it as a compliment. She could see the weariness in his eyes, the relief that here was a matter not turning needlessly complicated or unpleasant.
She returned the smile. "So tell me why His Majesty is not here."
"He does not know I'm aware he wants children, is the short answer," Sarrica replied. "I am hoping to arrange a surprise."
"I see," she said with a soft, brief laugh. Because she did see. That single statement laid the matter out like a painting. She could easily see where Allen, young despite all his skills and acumen, would be hesitant about such a matter with Sarrica, already married once and with two children. And she knew just enough about Sarrica to not be surprised this was how he handled the matter. High Kings did not mince words, they simply did. "Well, I hope he enjoys his surprise, Your Majesty."
"If not, I have my ways of getting out of trouble," Sarrica said. "But you've not said what you'd like for additional compensation."
"You're paying twice what I expected, I hardly need more than that," Genna replied. "At this point, I can easily buy it myself, anyway."
Sarrica scoffed, rose, and went to the door. He opened it briefly, thanked someone outside, and returned with another bundle of papers. "As I had good reason to believe you would say as much, I took the liberty of coming up with someone myself. Well, Kamir and I devised something. See what you think."
Taking the papers with a mix of anticipation and trepidation, Genna set them in her lap and read—and once more found herself nearly spilling them to the floor. Blinking back tears, she looked up. "This is beyond generous, Your Majesty."
"I am quite literally asking you to risk your life and well-being to give my consort a child or two, nevermind the demands upon your time, and how much this will alter the rest of your life." He smiled wryly. "And we all know this is still a trifling thing for me to afford."
"All the same, Your Majesty, your generosity leaves me quite breathless." She looked back down at the papers again, touching them lightly as she reread the words: that her eldest daughter Jyrna would be fully funded at the Solorin Academy of Science. Jyrna was ten years old and obsessed with science—talked about things that made absolutely no sense to Genna but pleased her tutors to no end. They'd assured Genna over and over that her daughter was brilliant and should study at the best schools. But sending Jyrna overseas to study at such an elite academy for at least a decade, nevermind the costs of seeing she lived comfortably while there, was beyond even Genna's means. And that was pretending a forgettable countess could even get all the recommendations and other paperwork required. The academy accepted only a small number of students each year, and she'd been despondent she had no way to ensure her daughter would be one of them.
Except right here was the letter of acceptance, the balance of attendance to be paid in full by His Imperial Majesty Sarrica Harkenos, High King of the Harken Empire.
And for her younger daughter, soon to turn ten and old enough to be fostered to a mercenary group, an offer to take her on from no less than Fathoms Deep. Not quite as happy news, but it would make Tulira ecstatic. And hopefully, seeing as Fathoms Deep spent most of their time about the palace, she would be a lot less likely to die in combat.
She looked up, carefully wiping her eyes. "Thank you, Majesty."
Sarrica made a soft, dismissive noise. "It is I who thank you, my lady." He offered a hand and helped her to her feet. "Now I must speak with Allen." His eyes took a pleased, mischievous gleam. "I will contact you in a few days when we're ready to speak with you together." He winked.
"As you wish." She smiled as he lifted her hand, refusing to be flustered when this time he dusted a bare kiss across her knuckles. "Good day, Your Majesty."
"The same to you, my lady." Sarrica bowed his head slightly in parting then opened the door so she could precede him out. She bowed in the hall and they parted ways, and it took everything she had not to run back to her room to read through the papers all over again.
At this rate, she was never going to be able to sit down and focus long enough to pen her latest book, but she could not bring herself to care.
Allen crumpled up his list and threw it in the fire. He wasn't sorry to see any of the names on it go up in flames, but he was rather more depressed than he wanted to admit that his tentative hopes were officially nothing more than smoke and ash.
It had been a stupid idea anyway, and no doubt in a few more weeks he'd change his mind and stop caring again. He was merely getting carried away by all his friends suddenly having children. Technically he had children; Sarrica had seen he was legally made a parent to Bellen and Nyla, and Allen was completely happy with their family the way it was.
Sarrica likely would not want to deal with all the hassle involved, anyway. Or worse, he'd agree to make Allen happy and be miserable the whole time.
For the best, really, that the entire list of nobles registered as dames and sire who were also residents of the palace was full of options that were all unsuitable for one reason or another. For the best he could not find other candidates, since that would require asking Kamir or Tara for help, and what one person in their group knew, everyone in their group knew.
Reiterating that over and over to himself did not, however, make him feel less inclined to cry. If anything, the reassurances just made him feel worse. But it was for the best. He was a second spouse whose primary—only—purpose was to help Sarrica run the empire. He might be fortunate enough to have a spouse who loved him and wanted him, but the fact remained it Nyle had provided heirs. There was no reason for Allen to have children.
It had been a stupid idea, anyway. What did he know about parenting? He muddled along well enough with Sarrica's children, but he had none of the skill and ease that Kamir so effortlessly displayed time and again. That Tara was proving to possess. Allen would never forget how easily Kamir had gotten Bellen to chat in a crowded room, when Allen had been proud of himself for getting her simply to introduce herself.
He pushed away from his writing desk and rose, tucking away the supplies he'd drawn out and closing the top of the desk before going into his changing room to wash his face. The very last thing he needed was Sarrica noticing when they met for dinner shortly and demanding to know what was wrong. Because Allen would probably give up and admit it, and Sarrica would want to blaze around fixing it, and really it was better if he just let the foolish notion go once and for all.
Face cleaned, he pulled down his hair and re-did it into a simple knot at the back of his head, secured with jeweled flower pins that Sarrica could—would—easily remove later. As mood improvers went, that was usually one, but right then it only cheered him slightly.
Pulling on fresh clothes suitable for evening, he stepped into his favorite pair of shoes and rejoined Jac in the receiving area of the royal suite.
Jac smiled—but it faded almost immediately. "Are you all right, Majesty?"
"I'm fine," Allen said, dredging up a smile and squeezing her arm gently as he reached her. "Only tired. The meeting with Treya Mencee today was exhausting, and sure to be even more exhausting tomorrow."
"I think you're lying, but I'll let it go," Jac said, and hugged him.
Allen must be losing his touch, if he was so easily read these days. Though he hadn't been lying about Treya Mencee being exhausting, especially since the new delegates only saw a young man, barley past thirty, and far too pretty to know what he was about. If Sarrica wasn't there to basically repeat everything Allen said, he mostly spent his time beating his head against the table. "Let's go, I do not want to keep Sarrica waiting."
Jac snickered softly but said nothing as she fell into step beside him. Seeming to sense he needed distraction, she rambled on lightly with a tale of the palace guard's abysmal attempt to run down a handful of city children who'd snuck into the palace somehow and proceeded to cause all manner of havoc. Allen had wondered what all the shouting and running was about, but nobody had seemed in-danger alarmed or tried to take him to safety, so he hadn't stopped to ask.
When they reached the private dining room where Allen was to meet Sarrica, Jac bowed and took up position outside the door with the Fathoms Deep guards already stationed there.
Inside, Sarrica sat not at the table, but at the small sofa in the opposite corner, bathed in candlelight and achingly beautiful in his fierce, rough-cut way. He extended a hand as Allen approached, and pressed a lingering kiss first to his knuckles, then to his palm. Stepping in closer, Allen bent to kiss him, fingers feathering down the sides of Sarrica's face. He smiled as a heavy arms wrapped around him. When they finally drew apart, he was more than happy to be pulled into Sarrica's lap. "You're in a better mood than I expected, given the ruckus I was recently told about."
Sarrica chuckled. "The children? People always forget, when it happens, that it's happened many times before. When I was a child, I snuck out of my room one day and chanced upon a group of them. I cannot begin to describe to you the depth of my father's fury when he realized the identity of the ringleader. They were sent home with ringing ears. I was locked in my room and assigned a guard to watch me at every moment—even when pissing. After a week of that I was miserable enough not to ever sneak out again. For a few years, anyway. By then I was old enough to become the army's problem."
"Once a brat, always a brat," Allen said with a smiled, and went easily into another kiss, shivering at the scrape of Sarrica's beard, the too-sweet wine that flavored the kiss, the mouth that knew precisely how to move against his, tasting and pushing and consuming.
When Sarrica finally released him, Allen was panting lightly and almost ready to skip dinner. "So why did you insist on a private dinner tonight when I should be wearing down Treya…" he stopped as his fell on the small stack of papers on the table at the far end of the sofa. "Is that work?" He didn't quite pout, but it was close. "I thought this meal would be free of work."
"It's not work," Sarrica said in that way of his that was trying to be casual but was too slow and careful to be anything but serious—and stood a good chance of upsetting Allen. "It's a gift."
"A gift? Since when is a contract a gift?" Because he couldn't see more than that, but he could definitely see it was a contract by the lettering across the top and the way the rest was written out. Sliding from Sarrica's lap, hopelessly eager to learn what Sarrica had given or done for him, Allen picked up the contract and read the formal script across the top.
Contract of Child-bearing
Agreement of Dame to Serve as Surrogate to Intended Father
The papers slipped from Allen's fingers and scattered across the floor. "What—" His voice cracked, and he turned toward Sarrica right as he was swept up in his arms.
"I was hoping you'd be happy, not distraught," Sarrica said, returning to the couch and Allen to his lap.
"I thought I'd been so successful keeping my thoughts to myself," Allen murmured, not quite able to look at him, heart caught in his throat and drumming in his ears.
Sarrica made a noise like an aborted laugh. "For what it's worth, I was, as usual, the last to glean your thoughts."
Allen groaned and buried his burning face in Sarrica's shoulder, not remotely soothed by the fingers skating comfortingly along his body. "So I've been making a perfect fool of myself this whole time."
"I have never known you to play the fool," Sarrica replied. "Impulsive, reckless ninny—"
"Fine words coming from you," Allen cut in, smiling as he turned his head enough to speak.
"Yes, well, an expert recognizes and all that," Sarrica said with his own smile. He brushed back a strand of Allen's hair, tucked it behind his ear. "Everyone has been worried about you, and the way you've been fretting yourself to death for no reason, but no one thinks you a fool." Sarrica finally made him sit up, leaned in to kiss him softly. "What I want to know is why you did not feel you could talk to me about it."
Allen looked away, an ache twisting in his chest. "You already have children, there's hardly a need for more, and I've plenty else to do besides. I was chosen to help you with Harken."
Sarrica grasped his chin and forced his head back around, his green eyes helplessly captivating even as Allen ached to shy away again. "You were chosen to help me with Harken, yes, but that does not mean the empire gets to dictate our relationship. You did not sign an agreement to never have children, and while I assumed you had no interest, I am hardly distressed that I was wrong. I'm usually wrong when I make assumptions about you, little songbird."
Laughing softly, Allen relaxed slightly. "Yes, well, I cannot take issue, given that I assumed from the start you would hate the idea and refuse, or hate the idea but go along with it for my sake."
"I would never agree to children I did not want," Sarrica said. "Even for you."
Allen smiled. "Yes, I suppose that is true. You take children as seriously as everyone should."
Sarrica kissed him, reaching up to twine his fingers through Allen's hair, sending some of the flowers pins tumbling to the floor. When he finally drew away, it was only just enough to murmur against his lips, "In your defense, there is very little I would not do for you."
"Yes, the whole court is aware I'm a spoiled brat and you're a fool taken in by a pretty face."
Sarrica snickered—and abruptly moved, spreading Allen out on the floor and bracing over him, reaching idly to remove the last few pins from Allen's hair and spread it across the colorful rug. "More like a stubborn mouth and bits of lace." He settled back on his heels to make swift work of the buttons and fastening of Allen's clothes, then shifted so he could mouth and tease at Allen's cock through the pale violet lace covering it. "Definitely the lace."
"If I had known that was all it took to garner your full attention, I would have mentioned it the day we met."
"In front of all the High Court?" Sarrica snickered, but before Allen could must a reply he pulled the lace down just far enough to get Allen's cock out and dropped his mouth over it.
Allen moaned, spreading his legs more, head thrown back as he scrabbled uselessly at the stiff rug for purchase. Sarrica pinned him down, leaving Allen at the mercy of the pace Sarrica set—which was agonizingly slow. He worked his way down Allen's cock, sucked hard, tongue rubbing, only to draw back at the last moment and pull free entirely to lick and suck along its length, shift to bite at the soft inner skin of Allen's thigh before sucking up a mark that would linger for days. "Sarrica!"
Chuckling, voice deep and rough in that way that drove Allen wild—and oh, the day Sarrica had realized the effect his voice had—Sarrica finally resumed sucking. He wasn't kind enough to release his hold, but he did finally take Allen as deep as he could, lips holding firm, that tongue rubbing back and forth, until Allen finally came with a cry they probably heard clearly in the hallway.
He couldn't find it in himself to be mortified anymore, even when Jac smirked at him.
Drawing back to sit on the sofa, looking immensely pleased with himself, Sarrica drew out a handkerchief to wipe the saliva and semen from his mouth. "Yes, I have definitely been happily seduced into making a fool of myself by that very sight."
"Just that sight?" Allen asked, rolling to his feet and abandoning all but the lace drawers before sinking to his knees in front of Sarrica. "Because I think I know another sight that affects your ability to think." He smiled, thrumming with pride and pleasure as Sarrica groaned.
Spreading his heavy thighs and settling between them, Allen opened Sarrica's breeches and pulled out his cock, running his thumb over the wet tip, then pressing his thumb to his lips to lick it clean. That got him another groan, and fingers carding clumsily through his tousled hair.
He took Sarrica in slowly, bit by incremental bit, refusing to be coaxed by the hand that ever tightened in his hair, pushing and pulling in turns. His name spilled out between grunts and moans and bits of broken praise.
To think he once believed Sarrica would never want him.
Allen finally let Sarrica have his way, surrendering completely and holding firmly as Sarrica fucked his mouth, stretching his mouth wide, sinking into his throat, back and forth until he finally thrust deep one last time and came.
He pulled out gently a few moments later, and Allen had scarcely gotten his breath back when he was dragged up into a messy, wet and hungry kiss that tasted only like them, all traces of Sarrica's earlier wine long banished.
Sarrica pulled Allen into his lap once more, an arrangement made infinitely more obscene when he wore nothing but damp lace drawers. He nuzzled Allen's cheek and kissed his way slowly to Allen's mouth. "Not that I'm remotely sorry, but we have gotten a bit distracted. Are you interested in accepting my gift?"
Allen smiled, resting their foreheads together. "I'm not sure; I'll have to review the contract first."
"Brat. Gather up your present, then."
Laughing, Allen went when Sarrica gave him a shove, pulling his clothes back on before collecting the scattered papers—which thankfully were only slightly wrinkled, most of them have escaped unscathed from the impromptu session on the floor.
Sitting at the table where their dinner languished, he smoothed the papers out and put them back in order. He immediately sought out the name of the person who'd agreed to be their dame: Lady Genna Zamir, Countess of Bella Daar. "Lady Genna?"
"I think you'll like her immensely," Sarrica replied. His mouth curved faintly, filled with mischief and smug satisfaction. "In more ways than one."
Allen cast him a look. "You needn't look so pleased with yourself for finding somebody attractive." He hesitated. "That won't—"
"Bother me?" Sarrica shook his head. "Hardly. I was the one who pressed for months for Nyle and I to get a surrogate. I would be put out if I was completely excluded from the process, but that is hardly going to be a problem."
A hot shiver slid up Allen's spine at the look Sarrica cast him. "I don't know why I asked. I can see how much it pleases you to be the mastermind in this whole affair."
"Well it's true I like when I'm the one making you happy," Sarrica said softly.
Allen ducked his head to hide the abrupt sting in his eyes. He searched his mind for what he knew of Lady Genna. A widow a couple of years older than him, two daughters, a smart businesswoman who mostly made money investing in various merchant companies and a handful of independent ships. Mostly she kept to herself, her family, and a few acquaintances. By all accounts pleasant, smart, friendly, but largely self-contained and private. "I've never met her, though I've seen her at a distance around the palace."
"Wait until you see her up close and wearing a clingy red gown," Sarrica replied.
"I see you're already looking forward to the process," Allen said with a laugh.
Sarrica shrugged and finally joined him at the table, pouring them glasses of a wine Allen favored. "I am content with you, but I am also a firm believer in making the process as enjoyable for all parties as possible. I see such arrangements all the time, and I promise very few of them turn out as pleasant as your parents and dame."
"I think it helped my dame is also my aunt, though they were certainly looked at askance for that. People seem to have it in their heads my mother had them both in her bed at the same time, but even leaving aside his sister was the other party, threesomes are not my father's taste."
"You know an alarming amount about what your parents do in the bedroom."
Allen laughed. "Not really, but as I said, they caused a great deal of talk and nobody pays attention to children when they gossip. And when I asked a question that she deemed reasonable, my mother answered it."
"Reasonable. To explain threesomes to a child." Sarrica shook his head.
"I was fourteen."
"If somebody tries to explain threesomes to my children at fourteen—"
"It's going to happen, resign yourself," Allen cut in with another laugh.
Sarrica smiled and removed the domes from their waiting dinner. "Spoken like a man who has not had them. We'll see what you have to say on the matter in a couple of years."
Allen opened his mouth, then closed it. Took a bracing sip of wine. "You really don't mind?"
"I like children, and I like the idea of having your children part of our family. I am sorry only that you fretted alone for so long."
"I'm sorry too," Allen said with a sigh. "I should have just asked, but I overthought it and tied myself in knots.
Sarrica leaned across the table to kiss him. "Well it allowed me to make a surprise of the matter, so I can't complain too much."
"How did you even figure out what was troubling me?"
"I rifled through your desk."
Allen narrowed his eyes.
"Don't expect me to be sorry."
"As long as you expect to be locked out."
"Like I've never picked the lock on a desk before."
Laughing, Sarrica pushed him back into his seat and dropped a quick, hard kiss on his mouth. "Sit. Finish reading the contract. Eat. Then I'm taking you upstairs and fucking you."
"Stay out of my desk," Allen retorted. "You didn't find anything else in there, did you?"
Sarrica paused in the process of taking a bite of rice and slowly set his fork back down, eyes gleaming. "No. What else is there?"
"A birthday present you won't be getting if you don't stay out of my desk!"
Sarrica just grinned.
Looking up as someone mentioned him, Sarrica shifted his attention from the notes in front of him on a recent meeting to the conversation in the hallway. Lord Myerling, he thought, and some voices he didn't recognize.
"…makes perfect sense to me. Since when have you seen him dote on anyone? I certainly never saw that with the late High Consort. Master Kamir has been slinking around for years, but now suddenly the High Throne pays him any mind? Why else would anyone marry a Farlander? Even if he is High Commander and was thrown a pity title. Like anybody with sense would want that moldering rock slowly collapsing into the sea."
One of the people with him tittered. "The way he fusses over Master Kamir is definitely telling. You don't see him fawning over the High Consort like that."
A third voice laughed, low and mean. "Yes, you do, and it's so obvious what he's panting for then."
Sarrica shook his head and gathered his notes, finished the last of the wine in his cup, and motioned to his bodyguard they were leaving. Looking a little too pleased, the bodyguard fell into step, leading the way out of the room.
The cluster of what was actually four people blanched as they saw Fathoms Deep, and looked two steps from passing out as they saw Sarrica.
Smiling as he passed them, Sarrica said, "I did fuss over Nyle, I simply did it more in private because he was too miserable most of the time to go out in public."
"Your Majesty," Lord Myerling said faintly, and nearly toppled over he bowed so hastily. The others belatedly followed suit.
Sarrica ignored them, once more putting most of his attention on the notes and the recent meeting because Allen would want every last detail so he could prepare suitably for the dinner party later in the week.
His bodyguard snickered softly behind him. "I'm surprised you didn't fine them, Majesty."
"I seldom fine for gossip," Sarrica said. "They'd all be destitute, and while some days that is tempting, it's not terribly practical." But if he heard them pose one more time that he'd slept with Kamir and was forcing his dirty secret on Jader, he would start in with the fines. "I do wish they worked as hard at their duties as they did at gossip."
"Well that doesn't sound anywhere near as fun, Your Majesty."
Sarrica sighed. "I suppose you have a point." At least soon the gossip would shift in focus to Lady Genna. That wasn't an improvement, but it was different, which was the best to be expected.
But thoughts of Lady Genna diverted his attention to their plans for that evening: him, Allen, and Genna. The papers had been signed that morning, and word of the filing should be spreading soon if it hadn't already. By morning for certain everyone would know.
After that, it was hard to focus on the rest of the day, but Sarrica pushed on because if he dallied or delayed or messed something up, it was his evening and night which would suffer and that was intolerable.
Thankfully, the rest of the day cooperated for once. He doubted it would ever happen again, but he would take his victory and be grateful.
Allen was already there, dressed in dark purple, his hair in a simple, loose braid that had fallen over one shoulder. He sipped at one of his precious Gaulden wines and was reading idly over some papers. Looking up at the sound of someone else arriving, he broke into a smile that never failed to make Sarrica feel like the center of the world. "Who did you have arrested to get here on time?"
"No one, for once," Sarrica said. "I think everyone knew if I was delayed in any way that arrest would be the kindest punishment they'd receive."
Allen laughed and rose, offering a hand as Sarrica drew close—and laughed anew as Sarrica pulled him. He returned the kiss eagerly, fingers twining in Sarrica's thick hair, tasting of wine and honey. Sarrica slid his hands lazily down Allen's body, enjoying the shivers that elicited, the eagerness in his kiss.
Drawing back, sucking briefly on Allen's lips before letting him go entirely, Sarrica said, "You are making patience a very difficult thing."
"Well you shouldn't have to wait—"
A knock at the door made them both freeze, then laugh softly. Sarrica stepped back further and called out, "Come in!"
The door was thrown open by Lesto, Lady Genna on his arm. "Your Majesty."
"I'm always alarmed when you're polite," Sarrica said. "Since when do you play escort?"
Lesto scoffed like Sarrica was the greatest trial in his life. "Good luck, my lady."
Genna bit her lip in a futile attempt to smother a smile as Lesto swept off again in his imperious way, closing the door sharply behind him. "He said he wanted to escort me because otherwise I would be waylaid by still more gossiping halfwits determined to somehow steal my place at the last moment, or at least ruin this for me."
"Well, he's certainly not wrong about that," Sarrica said with a sigh. "I hope the day has not been too difficult for you."
"I admit it's strange to be the focus of so much attention, but it's well worth it." She did smile then, bright and mischievous. "And I don't just mean the monetary perks that come with being the imperial dame."
Sarrica threw his head back and laughed. "That makes good hearing, and I must say you look even better in purple than you did in red."
She bowed her head to acknowledge the compliment.
Sarrica cast Allen a look and stole the chair he'd recently vacated. Allen drew a breath, and let it out slowly as he approached Genna. They were of equal height, Allen perhaps a hair or two shorter. Both wore purple, if different shades, and though Genna's gown was plainer than Allen's elaborate jacket, she was no less stunning for it. Her hair hung down in heavy braids, the ends secured with purple beads.
There was one last moment of hesitation between them, and then Allen leaned in and kissed her. It was as pretty and intoxicating a sight as Sarrica had anticipated the past few weeks. The strangeness of watching Allen kiss someone else was equal to the headiness of it.
Genna moved in closer and twined her arms around Allen's neck, kissed him harder, deeper, eliciting one of those soft little whimpers Sarrica loved so much. He stroked himself idly through his breeches, eyes locked on the decadent sight before him.
Allen wrapped his arms around Genna's waist, spanning his hands across the small of her back, then traced his fingers up and down her spine.
Standing, Sarrica went to the door and locked it. Fathoms Deep already knew they were not to be disturbed, but he was taking no chances. Even if there was an emergency, he wanted to be absolutely certain whoever came to notify them had to knock.
Returning to the pair, Sarrica pressed up behind Allen and pressed kiss to his neck, recently bared as Genna worked at the fastening of Allen's jacket and the shirt beneath. When all the buttons had been opened, Sarrica pulled the clothes off and cast them aside.
Allen tensed at the rush of cool air against his skin, but was immediately distracted by Genna taking his mouth once more and Sarrica's kisses to his neck and shoulder. Sarrica smiled at his shivered and started working on his braid.
Pulling back, panting softly, Genna said, "I can certainly see why everyone gossips about the High King being enthralled to the point of distraction with his pretty young consort." She dragged Allen into a harder kiss, one hand curling around the back of his neck, the other dropping lower and extracting a rough, hungry noise Sarrica knew very well indeed.
"I think we should move this to the bed," Sarrica said as he reluctantly drew back.
Genna licked her lips, pale amber eyes bright with mischief and intent as she met his gaze. "Before I get so much as a kiss from the High King who schemed all this?"
Sarrica laughed and stepped around Allen to loop an arm around her waist and drag her into a hard, hungry kiss. She tasted like tart fruit and something creamy, and also of Allen, making Sarrica groan. Her nails raked through his hair and along his scalp, sending delicious shivers through his body.
Drawing back, he turned and kissed Allen, biting and sucking at his lips, drunk on the excitement in his kiss, the nervous eagerness, the hand that rested against his pulse and stroked teasingly. Finally tearing himself away, Sarrica led the way to his bedroom. Some night, they'd have to linger over removing clothes, but right then he was eager to see her, see them, in his bed, a tangle of sweaty limbs and messy hair.
He dragged Allen close and kissed him again, holding firmly to his ass, still covered in black and purple lace, trimmed with tiny bows that caught on Sarrica's rough fingers. Allen cupped the sides of Sarrica's face and kissed him ardently back, mouth hot and eager and so deliciously knowing as it tangled with Sarrica's, tongue and teeth and lips equally invested in making him shiver and moan.
Eventually Allen drew back to smile, love and affection filled to bursting in his blue eyes. Sarrica kissed him again, helpless not to, then withdrew again and took another kiss from Genna, skimming his hands along her body, her skin warm and soft, body thrumming with anticipation as she rubbed against him. It had been a long, long time since he'd felt the soft press of breasts against his chest—since well before Nyle, who'd never favored having his chest touched during sex.
Letting her go, Sarrica got her and Allen on the bed.
"I approve of these," Genna said, settling in front of Allen on her knees and cupping his cock through lace already damp in spots. Her breasts were small, the nipples large, already hard as Allen reached up to cup and caress. Like Sarrica she was completely naked, even more beautiful in the lamplight than her clingy gowns had hinted, all the lovelier as she and Allen twined together again, riding one of his thighs and cupping his ass.
Sarrica settled behind her, cupping her breasts and teasing the nipples further with his thumbs, bending to put his teeth teasingly to her long, pretty neck. "So how does reality compare to fantasy and palace rumor, my lady?"
Genna laughed. "So far, infinitely better, but we'll see if you can make me scream before I make a final decision."
Allen kissed her and chuckled against her mouth. "How does reality compare to writing?"
Genna stilled, then laughed-groaned as she shoved a hand into his drawers and pulled his cock out, running a thumb over the wet tip. "I thought I'd gotten away with that little secret. I should have known better."
Sarrica kissed her throat again, sucking lightly at the spot where he her pulse raced. "We did have to investigate thoroughly." He trailed one hand down her body to pushed fingers into the thatch of dark curls between her legs, easily finding the spot that made her swear and moan all at once, writhing between them, hips moving as she tried to get more stimulation. All the while her fingers worked Allen's cock, as she pushed against him greedily seeking more wet, hungry kisses that Allen eagerly returned.
Tangling fingers in her hair, Sarrica tugged her gently back and turned her head to take a kiss for himself, loving the taste of Allen in her mouth. When the kiss ended, she pulled away and turned around, then kissed him again briefly. Splaying her hands on his chest, eyes gleaming with an approval that reminded him strongly of Allen, she lightly dragged her nails down his torso, chasing the marks with her mouth, working steadily down to his cock.
Behind her, Allen had discarded his drawers entirely and was pressed against her, rubbing his cock in the seam of her ass, hands caressing and teasing whatever he could reach, extracting breathy moans and shudders.
After a few minutes, and only with great effort, Sarrica pulled away. He gripped his cock, which was wet from her mouth, and Pantheon was she pretty with her mouth stretched and swollen. Her eyes were hotter than any fire as she looked at him, mouth quirked in the barest pleased little smirk.
"As delightful as you are, my dear, I have every intention of fucking Allen while he fucks you."
Genna closed her eyes, shivered as Allen pressed up close, one hand cupping and teasing her breast, the other stroking much further down. "That sounds lovely." She opened her eyes and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Though I hope at some point I'll learn what it's like to be fucked by you both at the same time."
"Rest assured," Allen murmured, nibbling at her ear, rubbing harder at her clit, extracting a long moan.
"Good," she said. "Now onward with the rest of tonight's proceedings." The beads in her hair clacked softly as they shuffled and shifted. Genna fell back against the pillows and drew Allen to her, kissing him languorously, legs spread to cradle him.
Serrica slicked his cock and pushed wet fingers inside Allen. That got him a deep moan from both of them.
"Now," Genna said, voice raspy, needy.
Allen drew back enough to line himself up and push inside her. Genna groaned and clung tightly to his shoulders. "I need more."
"Soon," Sarrica murmured as he worked himself into the familiar tight heat of Allen's body. When he was fully seated, he bent to place a kiss between Allen's shoulder blades. "Ready?"
"Yes," Allen and Genna gasped together.
Grinning, Sarrica grabbed hold of Allen's hips and started fucking him, every thrust sending Allen rocking forward, making his strokes that much deeper and harder as he fucked Genna, who dug her nails in and encouraged them with demands and pleas and more of those lovely moans, some of them sounding like an attempt at Allen's name.
Allen tensed in that way he always did right before he came, then he bent and kissed Genna hard right before his climax shuddered through him.
Sarrica fucked him a few more times, then came, plastering to Allen's back and kissing his sweaty shoulder.
A couple of minutes later, still panting and cooling off, they slowly disentangled and sprawled across Sarrica's enormous bed.
Genna had a room of her own, the Dame's Suite across the hall, last used by his grandparents when they'd contracted a sire. He'd felt bad uprooting her from the suite she'd occupied for as long as she'd lived in the palace, but they all felt better having her live in the more secure imperial suite.
Eventually, Genna sat up, but whatever she meant to say was cut off by a jaw-cracking yawn. Laughing as she finished, Genna finally said, "As happy as I am to serve the empire, Your Majesties, I think it's time to seek my own bed." She kissed Allen, then leaned over him to kiss Sarrica—and shrieked as she drew back, jerking upright and covering the nipple Allen had playfully nibbled. "Brat."
Allen snickered. "Good night, my lady. Thank you for a most enjoyable evening. I hope you sleep well. Should you be inclined to join us for breakfast, certainly do."
"I believe I will. Good night to you both." She retrieved the dressing robe that had been left for by servants, and swept off with a playful bow.
Sarrica made certain she made it across the hall, the snuffed all the lights but the one on his side of the bed before crawling back into the warm blankets. He pushed Allen gently onto his back and braced over him, dipped his head to give a leisurely kiss. "Have fun?"
"I should hope that was obvious." Allen idly stroked the lines of Sarrica's face, expression one of soft fondness. The caresses were familiar, something Sarrica had come to expect and even need. He hated to always be noting comparison between his spouses, but he had not noticed how tactile he and Nyle weren't until Allen proved to be extremely tactile once his guard was down.
Taking one last kiss, Sarrica rolled back over to stretch out on his back. Warm contentment washed through him as Allen cuddled close, pressed along his side and half-draped over him, long hair spilling around him and turned to spun gold in the lamplight. "You're looking entirely too pensive for a man who just enjoyed being the middle bit of a threesome."
Allen laughed, muffling it against Sarrica's chest. When he finally looked up again, he said, "Not so pensive, really. I was thinking only that I'm nervous but happy about where this all will lead. Grateful you are so willing and eager a participant in my having children. And that I love you."
Sarrica swallowed. "I love you, too. I'm forever grateful nobody listened to me about what I said I wanted in a new consort."
"I'm glad you didn't send me packing like you should have after my reckless behavior with the Dragons."
"I'm foolish, but not that foolish." Sarrica kissed him again, then drew the blankets up to settle more comfortably and snuffed the lamp. Allen settled more heavily against him, and was fast asleep a few minutes later, and Sarrica fell asleep to the sound of his steady breathing and the faint beating of his heart.