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

Topacia chuckled at my sour look. I ignored her laughter, unlocked my jaw, and gestured at my helmet, coveralls, and boots.

“No one is going to recognize me dressed like this. Besides, as far as the public knows, Princess Gemma is currently on a frivolous shopping trip in Svalin, not engaged in an adventure in Blauberg.”

Topacia arched an eyebrow. “Adventure? Is that what we’re calling it now? And here I thought that working in the mine was hard, dirty, sweaty labor.”

“Oh, it is most definitely that.” I grinned. “But that’s part of what makes it an adventure. And I do so love a grand adventure.”

Topacia snorted.

“It is an adventure,” I repeated in a firmer voice. “And even better, you and Grimley are here to join in the fun. Right, Grims?”

I glanced over at the gargoyle stretched out on the rug in front of the fireplace. He was roughly the size of a horse, although his dark gray stone body was much thicker, stronger, and lower to the ground. Powerful muscles rippled in his short, stocky legs, while black talons perfect for ripping into, well, everything protruded from his large, wolflike paws. His broad wings were currently tucked into his sides like the closed folds of a lady’s fan, but two curved horns jutted up from his head, and an arrowlike point tipped his long tail.

The gargoyle cracked open his bright sapphire-blue eyes, which had also been memorialized in the cursed song. He yawned, revealing a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.

Grimley was my best friend, and the gargoyle had been my constant companion ever since I had come across him in the Spire Mountains when I had been fleeing from Bellona after the Seven Spire massacre. Back then, I had desperately needed a friend, and Grimley had seemed like a gift from the gods. He had saved my life more than once during those dark, frantic, dangerous days, and we had been inseparable ever since.

Grimley lifted his head and peered at me. He must have been sensing my turbulent thoughts through our mental bond. I shoved away the unwanted memories of the massacre and its aftermath, walked over, and crouched down. Grimley rolled over so I could rub his belly, which had the same rough, weathered texture as the rest of his flexible stone skin. Thanks to the heat blasting out of the fireplace, he was as warm as a rock baking in the summer sun.

You lazy lout, I thought, using my magic and directing my silent, affectionate words at him. You could at least pretend to be excited about our mission.

I’m much too comfortable to be excited about anything. Grimley’s deep voice filled my mind, sounding like bits of gravel crunching together. Besides, working in the mine is your mission. Mine is to make sure that you return home safely, as per your father’s orders. In between naps, of course.

Even though I was twenty-nine and fully capable of taking care of myself, Dominic Ripley, the crown prince of Andvari, would have preferred that I remain in Glanzen, the capital city, and engage in courtly tasks there, as well as fritter my days away with shopping trips, teas, and balls. That would have also greatly pleased my grandfather Heinrich Ripley, the current king of Andvari. Both of them would have been ecstatic if I never set foot outside the royal palace ever again, rather than be a traveling ambassador for our kingdom, a position I had created to help facilitate my spy missions.

But to their credit—or they might say detriment—my father and grandfather had instilled a strong sense of duty in me, one that demanded I do everything in my power to protect my people. Which, in my mind, meant slipping away from the proper places people expected me to be, going on adventures, and putting myself in mild to moderate danger, from time to time.

People tended to either babble or brag in Princess Gemma’s presence, and usually, all it took was a few kind words and a couple minutes of my attention to convince someone to share all the news and gossip they knew. I then used that information to thwart plots large and small, everything from stopping merchants from overcharging for their goods to getting nobles to pay their taxes to tracking down bandits who had been terrorizing a town. My seemingly innocent travels had also let me build a network of sources all across Andvari and beyond, many of whom were happy to write and keep me informed about the goings-on in their part of the continent.

Grimley wiggled around on the rug, getting even more comfortable. I fully intend to follow your father’s orders, should the need arise. But until then, I will leave you to fend for yourself, which you are quite capable of doing, and you will leave me to my nap, which I am quite capable of enjoying. Are we agreed?