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In the year of our Lord 1817
"Look there. Ain't that the biggest ass you ever seen?" Ralph asked, and pointed gleefully over the heads of his shipmates.
Not daring to glance right or left lest her stomach spew forth its dubious contents, Tatiana Octavia Linnet Rocheneau, crown princess of Sedonia, kept her eyes strictly on the balding head of the passenger ahead of her. She could not help but wonder, however, if some Teleerian maid should be mightily offended or if, perchance, there was a prize-winning donkey upon the blessed terra firma they had almost reached. 'Twas impossible to guess with the giant called Ralph. Indeed, hiring him was near the pinnacle of folly. But boarding this leaky tub was surely the worst mistake of all. She hated the sea. When she returned to Sedonia, she would ride astride for a week and never board a ship again.
The waves slapped hard against the ship's weathered sides. Beneath her feet, the Melody heaved and groaned. Tatiana's stomach did the same.
"Ahh." Ralph sighed and shook his oversized head, apparently oblivious to the sickening roll of the ship. "Makes me 'appy just to think of the things I could do with an ass like that."
Behind her, a plump woman with two whining children jostled her. The mother smelled of garlic, the children of things Tatiana dared not consider. Her stomach heaved again, but she controlled it as she controlled all things, with a stiffened backbone and dogged determination. They would be disembarking in a moment, leaving the wretched vessel behind forever. She focused on that thought and that thought alone. Not the gilded gifts hidden in her deceptively worn leather bag, not the milling docks of Portshaven, and not the man she had traveled nearly two hundred leagues to meet. Just now all she needed was to reach a place of privacy before her stomach betrayed her, plummeting her to the level of her strong-smelling shipmates.
The Melody bucked. Tatiana swallowed hard and closed her eyes against the roiling misery.
"Aye, she was the finest ass I ever 'ad, she was." Ralph sighed, and Tatiana realized somewhat belatedly that her hired bodyguard may well have been waxing nostalgic about his long-lost burro for quite some time, but in that moment he noticed her expression. "You unwell, missus?" he asked. He'd called her that from the first, though she'd ordered him more than once to refer to her as Mrs. Mulgrave, or Widow Mulgrave. Or even Linnet, if he must. But Ralph was something like an upset boulder. Once he was set on a path it was difficult to change his course. Still, "missus" was better than some things he might call her if he knew the truth. If he knew she was a crown princess incognito, with a paid impostor on the throne.
"Yer lookin' a mite green about the gills there, missus. If'n yer gonna vomit, 'twould be best if you made yer way to the rail."
She gritted her teeth. "I am not about to -- " She paused to swallow and squeeze her eyes closed again.
"'Tis naught to be ashamed of, missus, and you'd feel the better for it."
She didn't respond. Didn't dare.
Ralph elbowed her with a chuckle. She bounced off his arm, ricocheting into a stout man holding a speckled chicken. It squawked its offense and fluttered wildly while its owner cuddled it to his chest and glared at her from beneath his frayed cloth cap.
"Yer a tough little acorn despite yer wee size, ain't you, missus?" Ralph asked.
She suppressed a groan and reminded herself that while Viscount Nicol might be one of the few advisors she trusted without question, he had not chosen this particular guard for either his wit or his charm. Ralph had fists the size of draught-horse shoes and shoulders like battering rams. He'd been hired to stave off trouble, but thus far he'd not managed to do a thing about the battle that roiled like a summer storm between her breast and her pelvis.
"I am not" -- she gritted her teeth and swallowed again -- "little."
The deck of the Melody shifted wildly. She focused on the horizon, but not a soothing blade of grass could be seen. Indeed, nothing but lumbering crowds and tilting buildings met her gaze.
"'Ey," he exclaimed. "There's that ass again. I can see 'er ears." He laughed happily. "P'raps I could 'ire 'er so as you could ride in style to yonder abbey." He sighed. "I bet she'd give you a 'ell of a fine ..." he began, but at that moment the man ahead of her stepped onto the plank, leaving a bit of space between them and drawing all her attention to a lovely wisp of air that feathered with blessed gentleness across her face. She gulped it in, but in a second it was gone, stifled by the host of bodies jostling toward shore.
"Me uncle Toddle 'ad 'im an ass once, though 'e weren't near so big as that lady's -- "
"Cease!" she gritted. "Cease talking about the lady's ass." Perhaps her words were a bit louder than necessary, but Ralph's expression was as placidly mild as ever. She sensed the other passengers turning toward her, however, and felt certain their hideous odors increased with their misplaced attention. Remembering her intention of remaining unnoticed, she forced a smile and lowered her voice. "Please."
"Poor little missus," Ralph said, and chuckled to the crowd that pressed in on them like so much spoiled barley. "Not her usual jolly self, she ain't."
Perhaps he was mocking her, for she was not inclined toward jolliness even on her best of days. And perhaps Nicol was correct, she might not be as patient with others as she should be ...The Princess and Her Pirate. Copyright © by Lois Greiman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.