Capture the Crown (Gargoyle Queen #1) by Jennifer Estep




Part One

Princess





Chapter One


I love being a princess.

The beautiful gowns. The sparkling jewels. The scrumptious food. And of course shopping for balls, dancing at balls, and flirting at balls. Oh, yes. I love all those things and many more.

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way. After all, most royals have horrible reputations. Queens are cold, kings are cruel, princes are pompous. If you asked, most people would say that I was a pampered princess. Why, I would probably top the list of the most pampered princesses, both on the continent of Buchovia and the ones beyond, something that fills me with an inordinate amount of pride. If you’re going to be known as something, then you should be known as the very best at it. And I bloody excel at being Gemma Armina Merilde Ripley, crown princess of Andvari, known far and wide as a fashion trendsetter, excellent dancer, and skillful flirt.

But there is one thing I love more than being a princess—being a spy.

“Are you ready, Gemma?” a voice asked.

I looked over at the fifty-something woman standing along the wall. Several strands of silver glimmered in her dark brown hair, which was pulled back into a bun, while lines were grooved into her bronze skin, especially around her hazel eyes, as if she had spent years perpetually squinting in worry. With me as her charge, that was exactly what she’d done.

The woman was dressed in a dark gray tunic, along with black leggings and boots. No crests or symbols adorned her clothes, but the silver sword and matching dagger hanging from her black leather belt hinted that she was far more than the commoner she appeared to be.

I smiled at Topacia, my longtime personal guard. “Almost. Just double-checking my disguise.”

I studied my reflection in the freestanding mirror in the corner of the living room. As soon as we had secretly arrived in Blauberg last week, I had packed away my gowns and jewelry. Then I had chopped off my long dark brown hair to shoulder level and dyed it black, so that I would look slightly different from my normal self, although I hadn’t bothered changing the curve of my cheeks or the shape of my nose with a beauty-glamour ring. There was no point, since my pale skin would be covered with grime the second I stepped into the mine.

My now-black hair was pulled back into a low ponytail that was tucked underneath the gray, ridged metal helmet that topped my head. Like Topacia, I was also wearing a dark gray tunic and black leggings, although they were currently hidden beneath my light gray coveralls. Sturdy black work boots covered my feet.

The thread masters at Glitnir, the Andvarian royal palace, would probably faint if they saw my miner’s outfit, which was a far cry from the silks, satins, and velvets I usually wore. I didn’t mind dressing down, although I did wish that the coveralls were softer and that the heavy-duty canvas didn’t scratch the back of my neck. Perhaps I could lobby for more comfortable uniforms for my kingdom’s miners once I was back in Glitnir.

Everyone at the palace would probably snicker, thinking that such a proposal was the height of foolishness, but I had spent enough time in heavy tiaras, constricting corsets, and pinching shoes to know how important it was to be comfortable, especially when working. And dancing at balls and hobnobbing with nobles was work. Besides, such a seemingly ridiculous idea would fit in perfectly with my carefully crafted persona.

To most people, Princess Gemma Ripley was a pretty decoration, another jewel among the scores that glittered, glistened, and gleamed at Glitnir, and I had no intention of disabusing anyone of the notion that I was all sparkle and no substance. Being underestimated had helped me more than once, especially on my secret missions, and this undertaking was far more important than most.

Topacia studied me. “Cutting and dyeing your hair certainly helped, although perhaps you should reconsider wearing a glamour ring and change your eye color too.” A smile tugged up her lips. “Especially since you have the bluest eyes in all the kingdoms. Isn’t that how the song goes?”

I groaned at her joke. A few years ago, for my twenty-fifth birthday, a potential suitor and music master had composed “The Bluest Crown,” an admittedly catchy, fast-paced tune about how the blue of my eyes matched the sapphires in one of the Ripley royal crowns. To my horror, the song had spread like wildfire through Andvari and all the other kingdoms. Now people almost always sang the song, or at least performed an instrumental version, whenever I made an official appearance as Princess Gemma. I had enjoyed the song—the first few times I’d heard it. But now, hundreds of screechy, off-key renditions later, the mere thought of it made me grind my teeth.