Princess at Sea

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Decoy PrincessPrincess at Sea

Princess at Sea
ISBN # 0-441-01117-9

 

 

Princess at Sea is the second book in the Princess Series. It was originally published in 2006 through Ace Fantasy. It has been translated into German, and is doing quite well.

Foreign and reissue covers:

Princess at Sea German cover

Excerpt from

Princess at Sea
by
Dawn Cook

Copyrighted Material

One

            I kept my eyes on my cards and my breath slow when Duncan slid the red king I had discarded two turns ago under his sleeve draped over the narrow table between us.  His left hand holding the fan of cards moved in distraction, gripping the raised rim of the table with his right when an especially big wave rolled under the boat.  Behind him, the stacked tin plates from our lunch slid down the polished ash and into the wall with a plink.  The light coming in down through the hatch glinted on them, drawing my eye.
            From my peripheral sight, I saw a bare movement as Duncan hid his cheating.  His brow was tight in pretended worry when I looked back, and his mussed bangs hid his eyes.  Lower lip curled between his teeth to make his narrow chin narrower, he discarded.  “Your turn, Tess.”
            His voice was as guiltless as the rest of him, and I stifled my ire.  He didn’t know I’d spotted his cheating; few could.  That I learned to play cards with a cheater as good as he helped.
            Pretending ignorance, I drew a black priest, sitting straighter on the bench built into the side of the boat.  The faint sounds of an argument came stronger over the creaking of wood and hum of wind in the sails vibrating up through my feet.  One voice was high and excited, the other low and coaxing.  They were at it again.  I caught the accusing word “slavery” and winced.
            I laid down the priest with a soft snap, taking a moment to tidy the discard pile and wedge it where two sides of the railing about the table met.  The tilt of the deck had strengthened and the rhythmic surges had become more pronounced.  From above came Captain Borlett’s confident call to reduce sail.  The Sandpiper was a fast ship—especially with the wind coming from the angle it was—and the two accompanying warships were likely struggling to keep up.
            Duncan picked up the priest with a casual slowness.  His thumb rubbed the side of his second finger, telling me he was close to going out.  My pulse quickened, and I watched his long unmarked hands move.  They were deeply tanned and strong, having no calluses whatsoever: the hands of a thief, though he claimed he wasn’t.  Twin rings of gold glittered on one hand.  They were new additions.  “Purchased,” he had claimed last week as he proudly showed them off to me, and I believed him.
            There had been many such changes lately as Duncan took the opportunity to remake himself, and I couldn’t help but silently applaud.  His slow shift from vagabond to settled wealth had left me pleasantly surprised as Duncan developed an unexpected sensitivity in his appearance, which was amusing since watching him part with a coin so clearly pained him.  I only hoped a smidgen of respect would come with it.  Not that Duncan wasn’t worthy of respect, but his history showed an appalling tendency to be—ah—inventive in the ways he kept food in his belly and a pillow under his head.
            A new bit of color swirled through his brown trousers and long-sleeved shirt: soft golds and deep greens to match Costenopolie’s new colors, changed to reflect the addition of the Misdev line by way of marriage of their prince to my sister.  I thought it looked grand.  His boots were brand-new—and in my eyes, gaudy—picked up at one of the first ports we had called in and still smelling of the red dye he had insisted they rub into it so it would match his hat.  The wind had left his hair tousled, but it was newly washed and his cheeks were freshly shaven, thanks to the harbor we’d left this morning before sunrise.
            Duncan had always looked good—having a roguish mien that went well with his slight build, wide shoulders, and narrow waist—but now he had accented it with a modest show of wealth that made him downright attractive.  And even worse?  He knew it.
            The self-proclaimed cheat met my eye, his lips curving into a sly smile when he realized I was watching him again.  “Pay the table or fold,” he said, his casual voice matching the soft teasing in his eyes.  Flushing, I pushed one of the sweets we were using as wagers to the center with the rest.  Taking up a card, I stifled a start as I realized he hadn’t discarded into the pile but somewhere on his person.  Chull bait, I’d missed it.  If I lost now, I deserved it.
            The sound of my sister and her new husband’s argument suddenly grew louder, and I jumped at the loud bang from the stern of the boat.  They grew muffled again, and a shadow came from the depths of the back of the boat, the confidant, swaying movement telling me it was Haron.  Going sideways in places to navigate the narrow aisle, he entered the small common room at the base of the hatch’s stairs.  Sun-weathered face creased in irritation, the Sandpiper’s first mate stomped up the ladder, his shadow briefly eclipsing Duncan’s and my game.  From him came a steady, irreverent mutter about it being damn foolish to have women on the water and how we were all going to die for it and that it wouldn’t be his fault.
            The soft touch on my bare foot as Duncan stretched his long legs jerked my attention back.  In the instant I had been distracted, Duncan moved the card under his sleeve to a more secure location.  I didn’t see it, but I knew that was what happened when he made a show of stretching, proving there was nothing under his arm at all.  His cap had shifted position, though, and I would bet all my caramels that’s where it had gone.
            Irate I’d missed it, I nevertheless kept my face impassive.  Having allowed Duncan to distract me like that was inexcusable.
            “Are you going to discard, or not?” he asked, a hint of exasperation hiding his deceit.
            Eyeing the inculpable man, I slowly put one of my sweets into my mouth.
            “Hey!”  Amusement lifted the corners of his lips.  “You aren’t supposed to eat them unless you win them.”
            I arched my eyebrows.  “Or I catch you.”
            For an instant, surprise showed, then his jaw clenched.  “Burning chu pits,” he swore, hunching into himself and looking away.  With abrupt motions, he began gathering his cards.
            “Duncan, wait,” I said, suddenly sorry when he snatched the cards from me.  “I only saw it the once.  Just the one you put under your sleeve.  Everything else was perfect.  And the only reason I knew to look for it was because you kept distracting me.”
            His brown eyes pinched.  “You saw me move it?”
            I nodded, wishing now I had swallowed my pride and kept my mouth shut.
            “It’s the cold,” he said, looking at his left hand and flexing it.  Thin lips pursed, he jammed the cards into the hard-leather box he kept them in.  I said nothing, feeling guilty.  It wasn’t the cold—the warm current that bathed the coast kept snow from lingering, especially here on the water—it was the poison that still remained in his hand.
            The not-so-long-ago accidental prick from my hairpin had been an accident, but I still felt as if it had been my fault.  I had been fleeing a palace take-over, and as a cheat running with me intent upon regaining a portion of the coins I had fairly tricked from him, he hadn’t known I carried poison, the weapon of choice in the ancient sect of hidden power I belonged to.  He was lucky to have survived it, actually, seeing as he was overly sensitive to Punta venom.
            I reached to touch his sun-browned hand.  I didn’t know why.  I hated his cheating, and here I was, telling him it was all right.  My father would have said it was because I cared more about Duncan’s feelings than what was right and that I shouldn’t allow myself to be charmed like a fishwife or I’d end up one.  A fine ending for a Costenopolie princess, even if she had been bought into the royal family.
            Yes, bought as a decoy, unknowingly raised thinking I was the crown princess until a suitor bent on claiming everything some damned Red Moon prophecy promised brought out the ugly truth prematurely.  I had fled looking for answers, finding not only the real heir, but that the kingdom’s chancellor, Kavenlow, had secretly raised me to succeed his position as player.  My crushing disappointment that I wasn’t to rule the people I loved had easily slipped into delight when I found I’d rule them by stealth as Kavenlow now did in a continent-wide game of hidden conquest even the royals did not suspect.
            The prophecy, incidentally, had been fake, concocted by Kavenlow to insure his successor would be raised knowing the protocol and studies of a princess, and it had been so full of romantic tripe as to choke the most quixotic daydreamer.  Lord love a duck: a child of the coast destined to rule and conceived in the month of the eaten red moon will make an alliance of the heart to set the mighty as pawns and drive out the tainted blood rising in the south.  There was no wonder my neighbors wanted to kill me.
            My sister had quickly, abet reluctantly, married to forestall any more assassination attempts.  She had gone further to make my royal status irrefutable, so whereas my breeding was from the streets, I was still a princess.  I no longer had to marry whoever was best for the kingdom, and in the few months I’d been free of the kingdom’s demands, I’d found that freedom was heady, taking more strength to rein in than I was sometimes willing to exert.  Especially when it concerned attractive, clever, bad-for-me men like Duncan who liked to scheme and was as good at it as perhaps even Kavenlow.
            Seeing him now in his mix of worry and anger, I reached out as he stood to go.  “Please stay?” I asked, taking his damaged hand, and he hesitated, his shoulders easing.  It looked fine, the injury so deep that it only showed when he needed the greater finesse to move his cards.
            Duncan leaned against a support post to balance against the boat’s motion, his red hat brushing the low ceiling.  Pulling from my grip, we watched together as his hand moved in a gesture as smooth and even as royal silk, pulling a card from under his hat with two fingers and tucking it in the box with the rest.  “It’s the cold,” he said, knowing it wasn’t.
            I made a face to try to break him out of his mood. “Don’t think so,” I said saucily.  “I’ve always been able to spot you cheating.”  I playfully reached out and took one of his sweets, popping it into my mouth and arching my eyebrows.
            “Hey!” he cried in mock distress.  “I spent half a purse on those.”
            My tongue ran over the inside of my teeth to get every last bit of sticky amber.  “Nuh uh.  I caught you.  I deserve at least three.”
            Lurching in time with the boat, he sat beside me on my side of the table.  His brow smoothed when I didn’t shift away, and his hand went out to take mine.  Unlike my sister’s, my skin was as dark as his, my fingers having faint calluses in places most people had smooth skin.  A soft smile took me, seeing how small my hand looked within his.  He was so close, I could smell the dye from his hat.  I should move, but I didn’t.
            My pulse increased, and I watched his eyes.  An eager feeling of daring lifted though me, catching my breath.  I let him turn my hand over, and he dropped a handful of caramels into my palm.  “I bought them for you,” he said as he curled my fingers over them.
            I met his solemn expression with a smile that was probably besotted.  “Thank you.”  I dropped the sweets into a pocket and shifted closer under the excuse of a wave, reaching to check the topknot my long curls were in.  It was a nervous habit that brought a knowing glint to Duncan’s eyes.  He leaned closer, and my eyes widened.  Oh heavens, he was going to kiss me.  It was about chu-pits time!
            Another bang from the royal apartment brought my head around.  “To get some air!” came a furious shout.  It was Contessa, one hand on her gathered skirts, the other reaching like a blind man as she struggled to make her way up the narrow aisle to the common room.  I eased reluctantly away; my sister had the timing of an aunt with nothing to do but play chaperone.
            Alex was behind my her, managing the rocking boat a hindsight better in his shiny boots, snug-fitting breeches, and long-tailed coat of a rich green lined in gold.  In his grace, he even managed to keep his sword, at his side despite the security of the boat, from smacking anything.
            “Let me help you, Contessa,” he said gallantly, a devious smile about his thin lips as he nodded to first me, and then Duncan.  His light dusting of freckles, fine blond hair, and his trim, small-waisted figure brought to mind his murderous, power-crazed brother—the same who took over my palace and murdered my adopted parents.  The similarities of the two brothers had bothered me greatly until I realized that apart from their outward appearance, the two men were as different as salt and sand.  Thank God.
            “I don’t want your help,” Contessa muttered, red spotting her pale cheeks as she tottered to the steps.  “I’m trying to get away from you.”
            “Contessa, love . . .”  Green eyes sparkling, he reached to help her and she jerked away, jewelry chiming.  Giving him a potent glare she must have learned at the feet of the nuns who raised her, she struggled up the steps.  The wind whipped her unbound hair into her eyes and made her skirt to flair out.  I’d have a wickedly hard time getting the yellow strands untangled tonight.  Steadying herself, she stomped in her tiny boots to the railing and out of sight.
            Tempting fate, Alex ran a hand over his clean-shaven cheeks and followed the petite woman up.  The quick-minded prince was bored, and teasing my sister was apparently the only thing he could find to do.  Unfortunately, Contessa’s provincial temper made her an easy mark.
            The mood broken, Duncan slid down the bench a smidge.  He took three cards from his deck and practiced moving them in and out of hiding, the motion intentionally slow as he stretched and strengthened muscles.  I was fascinated in that I could have sworn he put the sun card in his sleeve but that it was the huntsman he took back out.
            Both our heads rose when Haron stomped downstairs and to his bunk, still grumbling.  The first mate had the night watch, and I knew it was too early for him to be up.  The faint sounds of Alex alternately trying to calm Contessa down and drive her to distraction grew louder over the creak of rope and wash of water.  A sigh shifted my shoulders.
            “Are you going to stop him?” Duncan asked when the sharp click of Haron’s door shutting came to us.  “She sounds ready to slap him.”
            Weary of it, I shook my head.  When I had accepted the position of Costenopolie’s ambassador at my sister’s request, I had thought it would mean I would be smoothing great political problems, not act as nursemaid and arbitrator between my sister and her new husband.
            “No,” I said, folding my arms on the table and dropping my head onto them.  “I told her he’s doing it to see her stomp her feet and put a blush on her cheeks, but she doesn’t listen.”
            “Maybe she likes it.”
            “That’s my guess.”  I tilted my head to see him past my brown curls.  Contessa was anything but even-tempered.  Despite being a mirror copy of our deceased mother, one would never know she was a queen by the amount of caterwauling she did.  That’s why the nuptial holiday.  Under the advice of Kavenlow, I was trying to instill the provincial woman with some polish as she met the people she was now responsible for.  It wasn’t working.  And though I liked Prince Alex, he wasn’t helping.
            The word “execution” and “hungry thief,” quickly followed by “barbaric” were a veritable feminine shriek, and Duncan shifted uncomfortably.  The argument about changing Costenopolie’s policy on suspected criminals had started this morning when we slipped from harbor.  I should step in—if only to get them to stop talking about executing thieves where Duncan could overhear.  He wasn’t a thief, he was a cheat.  There was a difference.  Sort of.
            “Maybe you’re right,” I said, gathering my skirts to rise, pausing at Duncan’s hand on my shoulder.  Surprised, I turned, blinking at the worry and the hint of pleading in his eyes.
            “Tess.  You don’t owe her anything.  You owe Kavenlow even less.  Why won’t you—”
            Pulling from his hand, I stood, cutting him off and catching my balance at one of the support planks the deck was built over.  “I owe her everything.  I owe Kavenlow my life for pulling me from the gutter.  Nothing is keeping you here.  If you want to go, that’s fine, but she needs me.  Costenopolie needs me.”  Frustration at the old argument made my words harsher than I had intended, but I wouldn’t drop my eyes.
            He made a scoffing bark of laughter, slumping back.  “God save you, Tess.  Costenopolie won’t fall if you leave it,” he said bitingly, then pinched his brow to soften his words.
            I flushed.  Actually, it might.  Eventually.  But I couldn’t tell him that.  He had no inkling that a continent-wide game of hidden conquest swirled under the veneer of royal power.  Very few did.  I had been raised in the palace, and even I hadn’t known until Kavenlow told me of the magic he had been secretly building my strength for.
            I said nothing while the frustration shifted behind his eyes.  He knew he was welcome to stay at court as long as he wanted, but as a player, I couldn’t allow myself to get close to anyone lest he be used against me by a rival.  All Duncan knew was I wouldn’t allow more than a fleeting kiss, and I knew it confused him when he saw my willingness in an unguarded moment.  Things had been a lot easier when I had been the crown princess.
            “I’m not leaving her,” I said, stepping from behind the table.  “For you, or anything.”  Grabbing the ladder, I started up, hiding behind my responsibilities as ambassador.  I felt like the bottom of a chu pit for my lies of omission and my lack of trust to give him my secret.
            A confused anger at myself warmed me as I held my skirts with one hand, the ladder with the other.  It wasn’t fair.  None of it.  Whom I gave my heart to was no longer linked to the crown, yet I was still ruled by it.  I left him with his cards, as silent and as frustrated as I was.
            The wood framing the hatch under my hand was warm from the sun, and I lurched onto deck.  Like a blow, the wind struck me, pushing me and making my skirt flair.  It wasn’t cold, but so strong a force took getting used to.  My toes gripped the wood polished by sun and sliding ropes.  Squinting from the glare, I held back the brown curls that had escaped my topknot.
            I was facing the stern, and the clouds behind the tilting horizon were blue with rain.  The waves were choppy since the wind was blowing against the current, tearing the wave tops as tonight’s storm grew closer.  Captain Borlett at the wheel gave me a sympathetic nod, looking stiff and uncomfortable at his unintentional overhearing of the royal argument.  I thought he looked inexcusably relieved that it wasn’t his responsibility to put an end to it.
            A welcoming nicker pulled my gaze to my horses standing tethered against the wall of the galley shack at the bow.  The black animals were here only because Alex’s horse hadn’t taken to the water and Contessa had rightly insisted they should have matched animals.
            I didn’t mind me riding borrowed horses when we went ashore to assure the populace that they really did have a queen and she had our mother’s elegant, regal beauty even if I didn’t, but the royal couple should be on horses we were confident in.  Jy and Pitch were well behaved, and had been trained for water travel even before Kavenlow had given them to me.  The gelding was my favorite.  I had named him Jy, short for Jeck’s horse, which is what I had called him before knowing he was really mine.
            Contessa’s voice pulled me to the railing where Alex had nearly pinned the white-clad woman.  Her fair skin was even paler in anger, and she had taken a defensive stance with her hands on her hips, looking like a fishwife despite her wearing enough silk to make a tent.  Alex, too, had lost his air of fun, having a stiff attitude with his chin high and his jaw set.  His freckles were lost behind a red tinge.  My mood of exasperation shifted to one of bother.  She must have insulted his honor.  It was the only thing that could shift the fun-loving man’s slow temper.
            Setting aside my thoughts of Duncan, I went to the railing and then forward across the sloping deck.  “Contessa,” I called, but neither of them heard me over the wind.
            My sister drew her heart-shaped features tight, pushing herself away from the railing and boldly into Prince Alex’s space.  The two of them made a handsome couple in their finery despite their anger.  “You’re wrong,” she said, loud enough for the sailors below to hear, and I cringed.  “You may have wiggled your foul way into my palace, but your Misdev cruelty will not gain one foothold in Costenopolie as long as I breathe!”
            “And you are a silly woman who has no inkling of how the world works,” he said.  From the wheel came Captain Borlett’s audible intake of breath.
            “You chull!” Contessa shrieked.  “And you’re a royal snot who
can’t see the ocean for the waves.  The power to chop the hands off thieves will not be given back to harbor masters and village leaders.  Kavenlow will hear every complaint before sentence is cast.  I don’t care how much it pulls from the coffers.  I will see your sword broken and you slinging chu before I let you convince me otherwise!”
            “The sword of my grandfather will not break,” Alex said, setting a hand atop the handle.
            I came abreast of them, not sure how to interfere without ending
up publicly reprimanded.  It was embarrassing and I didn’t like it.  “Ah, Contessa?” I started, tension slamming the air from me when she lunged forward and pulled Alex’s sword.
            My hand went to my topknot where I usually kept my poisoned darts.  “Contessa!” I shouted, lurching to stand between her and Alex as she struggled to hold the heavy sword.
            The point dipped as the fiery woman looked from me to Alex in frustration.  “If your sword won’t break,” she threatened, “then I’ll be rid of it.”
            “Contessa!  No!” I cried, reaching out even as she twisted her body and threw Alex’s sword out over the water.  I held my breath, watching in a horrid fascination as the hazy sun glinted on the highly polished metal.  Alex’s green eyes went wide in disbelief, too shocked to move.  Soundless over the wind, it cut cleanly into the water—and was gone.
            She had thrown his sword into the waves.  She had thrown his grandfather’s sword where none could find it.  Suddenly frightened, I tore my gaze from the gray waves laced with froth.  I could see the new Misdev/Costenopolie alliance that I had worked so hard to foster shred like cotton.  Her temper had dealt a blow more severe than had I murdered the prince in his bed.
            Contessa’s color was high, and she met my horrified look and Alex’s expression of shock with absolutely no repentance.  Her satisfaction melted into surprise when Alex swooped around me, and before I knew his intent, picked her up, and dropped her over the side.  Her shriek of surprise cut off with a splash.
            “Fetch my sword, wife,” he whispered, his jaw tight in anger.
            “Contessa!” I shrieked when the call for man-in-the-water went up from three different throats.  Panicking, I pulled three knives from my waistband.  The first I threw to thunk into one of the twin lines holding the main sail.  One side of the massive sheet fell in a sliding sound of canvas amid shouts of distress.  The second went thunking into the lead of my black gelding, freeing him.  I had a third knife which I wanted to stick into fool prince Alex, but instead I used it to rip my outer dress off.  My heart pounded and my fingers fumbled in fear.  Contessa . . .
            “Were is she?” Alex said, his angry satisfaction dissolving as he peered over the railing and watched the waves.  Slowly he moved to the stern of the boat to stay with the disappearing bubbles.  “She hasn’t come up yet.”
            “She’s drowning,” I said, shoving my dress into him so hard he almost fell back.  Stupid landlubber.  Doesn’t know a bloody thing.  “Her skirts are pulling her down.  Congratulations.  I think you’re the new king of Costenopolie.”
            His mouth opened and his face went ashen under his blond bangs.  I had no time to spare for him.  Whistling for my horse, I ran to the stern, and as Captain Borlett reached out in alarm and protest, I scrambled over the railing and fell ungracefully into the water.  [. . .]

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Revised: 02/08/2010      Copyright © 2003 by Dawn Cook. All rights reserved.