Princess at Sea
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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. [. . .]