A Most Imperial Gift
On the morning of her birthday, Julissa Kordeun woke to find Gaspar Leonnte tracing her curves with his forefinger. Still half-sleeping, she sighed and rolled onto her back. She reached for him and the feel of his thick muscles beneath her hands, his body shifting above hers, brought her fully awake.
“Sneak attack,” he murmured in her ear. “I strike at dawn.” His morning beard rasped the skin of her neck and she giggled, twisting under him, seeking escape.
His arms prevented her, and then his knees were between hers and she was quite hopelessly vulnerable. His hardness pushed hot against her sex, poised to enter. Gaspar Leonnte, emperor of Uttor, was good at invasions.
Eyes still closed, she looped her arms around his neck and sought his lips. She doubted anything would ever take away from how much she loved his kisses. Masculine, smoky, commanding. Her legs curved over his thighs, knees clasping his hips, and he slid into her with a sweetness that made her entire body melt.
“Gaspar,” she sighed. She felt his smile in the way his lips curved as they left hers.
Four months ago, when he had taken her as his captive, he had been intent on making her his concubine. Just two weeks ago they had exchanged the vows that had made her his wife. His empress. Right now, he was claiming her body with an appreciation she found intoxicating, his hands roaming her every curve, cupping her breasts. When she looked up at his face and saw him gazing down, the desire burning in his eyes made her heart leap and she forgot everything but how much she loved him.
“Damn it, Jules,” he said, his pace quickening. “When you look at me like that, I can’t hold back!”
She gasped at how wonderfully each silky hard thrust added to her pleasure. He alone had ever known her like this, and she could not foresee how any other man ever would. Everything about him fit her perfectly, as though their bodies had been fashioned only for each other. Her hips lifted to his, finding the same rhythm.
“Goddess, could you be more beautiful?” His body now covered hers completely.
Though on the edge, she was not quite ready to concede the prize. He would gloat at having made her surrender, and she wanted to be able to say the same. Luckily, his position put him at her mercy. She had only to move her head ever so slightly to flick her tongue at the hard nib of his nipple.
She didn’t. Gaspar groaned and his pelvis slammed hard into hers, just twice more, before his body shuddered with release.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Julissa cried, quite willing now to give herself over to his forceful thrusts, relishing them along with her victory. Gaspar didn’t always win. Wave after wave of pleasure rolled over her before his defeat turned to withdrawal and he rolled onto his side, where he sighed with satisfaction. Julissa turned and nestled into his left shoulder.
“Gaspar, tell me again why you married me.”
“Because I never turn down a gift from the gods.” He answered without hesitation. “I was minding my own business, happy to have won my war and gotten back my sister—and what should fall into my bed but an amazing, sweet, beautiful girl who not only pleases me in bed, but has royal parents and can read erotic texts in seven languages. If that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is.”
Laughing, she pressed her face to his chest. Her fondness for erotic poetry had played a part in bringing them together.
“Now,” he said, “I think you should say why you married me.”
“Because I wanted to.” No one had forced her to marry him—not even Gaspar, who probably could have.
“But why did you want to? Tell me something specific.”
“You have all your teeth.”
He laughed and she smiled, happy with their game. Every time he asked, she told him something different. He kissed her and said, “You should know, I think, that I got back the portrait my marriage broker had been carting around. The one you said made me look like a horse.”
She angled up on an elbow. “Please tell me you aren’t going to keep it. That dreadful thing will just end up hanging in the back corridor of some palace. A few hundred years from now it might be the only portrait left. Then people will look at it and say, ‘That’s Gaspar Leonnte, who looked like a horse, poor man.’” She brightened at another thought. “We could always burn it.”
Gaspar shook his head. “Bad luck. We burn the portraits of enemies to demonstrate they are dead to us. But I think I can arrange an unfortunate accident…on one condition.” He lifted a hand to her face, his fingertips just brushing her cheek as he pushed back a lock of her golden hair. “You must come with me today, no questions asked, on a ride out of the city. I wish to worship you deserve, my goddess of love.”
The blood rose to her cheeks. If she resembled a goddess of love, or any kind of goddess, it was because Gaspar made her feel like one.
He rolled from her and she enjoyed a fine view of his backside when he rose from their bed. Gaspar had a strong body, naturally lean and layered with muscle. His years as a soldier, though he had not liked them, had shaped him well. She particularly liked seeing him from the back, though the front was very nice.
“I could stay in bed with you all day, but today is a very special day.” He tugged a light robe over his shoulders.
Her heart quickened. Had he remembered today was her birthday? She could not recall him ever asking. That was strange only because Uttorans took birthdays much more seriously than in her own—now conquered—country. Gaspar’s birthday celebrations would not be held for months…and were already being planned.
“Where are we going?”
He shook his head. “No questions asked also means no questions answered. Dress for standing at my side in public.”
She grinned and summoned her serving girl. Her first official act as an empress had been to free her slaves. Whatever Gaspar had planned, this public appearance would be her second.
“So many people!” Julissa took Gaspar’s hand as she stepped out of the carriage. They had traveled for hours and would almost certainly have to spend the night in this town. At least it was a pretty place. Colorfully painted buildings, mostly houses, led her eye to the sea. Trees and some impressive new-looking walls rose from the hill to their backs.
Scores—hundreds, actually—of people gathered to greet their emperor broke into cheers of welcome. Julissa didn’t even try to hide her smile or appear as if she were other than filled with happiness. She had never done well at looking dignified.
“Do you like it?” Gaspar asked.
“Like what?” Julissa looked around. The view was certainly exceptional.
“The town. I searched the empire high and low and this was the best town I could find.”
“It’s lovely. I like it very much.” Why were all the people smiling at her? She hadn’t said anything amusing at all. “Are we spending the night?”
It would be like Gaspar to find a perfect location for a night of torrid lovemaking. This place surely could provide such a setting.
“Better than that. We’ll be spending many nights here. I’m building a new villa, over there”—he pointed to the clean, new looking walls rising from the hill—“but that’s not the reason we’re here. We are here to honor your birth anniversary.”
“My birthday! You knew?”
He laughed. “You were catalogued. Imperial captives always are. Your mother gave the censor all of your dates of birth. I asked immediately. I didn’t want to do anything more hurtful to you than necessary, so I made sure my triumph didn’t fall on your birthday.”
That day had been painful. Terrible. Even then he had tried to set her mind at ease—and now she saw he had done all he could to soften the blow. It would be undignified to throw her arms around him and deliver so much thanks, but she wanted to. She looked around again at all the people.
“Is this a party?” If so, where were her family? The few faces she knew belonged to Quorum senators and imperial officers.
“This? No. This is a ceremony. Wave to the crowd.” He smiled and did the same, though his wave was more robust and drew a great cheer. Using a voice that would reach the edges of the small and quaint central plaza with ease, Gaspar continued. “Today I honor my wife, Uttor’s glorious empress, by placing her name upon our land. Upon this town. With the blessing of our Quorum and sacrifice of its former name on Chasca’s great altar, this town is pronounced favored. In recognition of its new status, I am giving it a new name. Julissa. Beloved of Uttor’s emperor…and therefore of Uttor.”
Another resounding cheer filled the square. Julissa gaped up at Gaspar, who was grinning.
“You named a town after me?”
“This town. The grateful inhabitants are going to put a statue of you over there, beside one of me.”
Two very large plinths occupied the center of the plaza. She could see statues were necessary to keep them from looking ridiculous. What she could not imagine was what a statue of her would look like. She had already seen a great many of Gaspar.
Julissa looped her arm through his and gave him—and the crowd—her very best smile. “Julissa is a very nice name for a town.”
“Better than the one it had before. And I didn’t just name it after you. I petitioned for, and the Quorum granted, that you should own quite a bit of land here. I believe you are the biggest landowner.”
“My own wealth?” Uttoran women generally owned property—and many were rich. Julissa, however, had come to Gaspar as a captive princess stripped of all her family’s lands.
“Yes. Yours and yours alone.” He lowered his head to whisper into her ear. “That’s why the people are so happy. Women are the very best land managers. They guard their holdings as ferociously as lionesses.”
They greeted the town’s leaders, all of whom looked happy and said nice things about her or their emperor. The three men and two women spoke warmly of the many attributes of their town, which she learned was known for fine wines, tiny sweet olives, and especially good fish. Such talk was enough to make Julissa hungry.
“I would love to taste some of your wine,” she said—and that was enough. The town folk began to set up the tables. Gaspar led her to the edge of the pretty quay from which they looked out on a rocky and scenic cove. Her cove.
When he placed his arm around her shoulders she sank against him. “Where did you get it?”
“The town. You didn’t just come here one day and kick out the existing landowners so you could give me a town to me or put my name upon it.”
“Actually…I did.” The sashing on his imperial robe caught the last rays of a sun fast dropping behind the hill. “The previous landowner was the man who put your father and brother on that slave ship—”
Julissa smothered a gasp and looked out to sea. Her father had died in that ocean, and her brother…still missing. Did she even want that man’s land?
“—so this town was among the lands I seized through proscription. I wanted to…give you something. Make you whole.”
“You make me whole.”
“And I love you more with every passing day. I don’t think it’s possible for you to be any kinder or loving, but it is possible for more of my subjects to learn to love you as I do. These people”—he glanced back at the colorful rooftops, many of which had clearly been painted but days before—“could use a little kindness. That other man gouged them to pay for an army. You won’t do that. Under your gentle hand I think they will prosper.”
“The little town of Julissa. Pretty and friendly.”
“And prosperous too, I promise you.”
“It’s a beautiful gift.”
She meant it. Her father had lost a kingdom…and now she had gained a village. Just a foothold in Uttor, really. A few plots of soil. But it would bear her name. Children would be born here, perhaps even some of her own once the villa above the town was finished. Even from here she could see crews of men were working very hard on it.
“Happy Birthday, Empress,” Gaspar said. He took her in his arms and she wound hers just under his ribs, holding him close. “The first of many.”
His lips claimed hers with a heated promise and somewhere behind them more cheers from the townsfolk of Julissa added to her joy.