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

Everyone’s breath steamed in the cool late-September air, and the horses pulling the carriages and wagons snorted out thick clouds of frost that fogged the road. Given Blauberg’s high elevation and the fact that the city had been built into the side of the mountain of the same name, autumn had already taken hold here, and brilliant gold and scarlet leaves adorned the trees lining the main thoroughfare.

Above the road, gargoyles sailed through the air, heading away from the people and buildings. Some of the gargoyles were bigger than Grimley, with wings so wide that they seemed to stretch from one side of the thoroughfare to the other, while others were almost as small as caladriuses, the owlish birds known for their snow-white feathers and the vast amounts of magic they possessed. Every morning, the gargoyles flew out into the surrounding forests and mountains to hunt for rats, rabbits, and more. Then, at night, they returned to roost on the city rooftops.

Topacia and I rounded a bend in the road, and the trees fell away, revealing the city itself. Blauberg boasted several different levels, each one steadily climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Stone steps shot straight up between the levels, while the streets zigzagged back and forth, gradually rising and falling with the terrain.

Many of the shops and homes were tall, slender structures comprised of gray stone, and their steep, pointed black-slate roofs made them look like towers, as though the entire city were a fairy-tale castle that had sunk deep into the mountain, and the towers were the only parts still visible.

Adding to the sunken-castle illusion were the intricate carvings and other artistry that embellished the buildings. Vines, leaves, and flowers flowed up many of the wooden shutters on the shops, while thick stone columns chiseled to look like blooming trees supported some of the finer homes. Bronze weather vanes shaped like gargoyles adorned practically every rooftop, creaking back and forth in the breeze.

Blauberg wasn’t nearly as rich and prosperous as Glanzen, the capital, but spying a silver moon glinting on a column or a sapphire pansy glimmering on a door was an amusing game I could play with myself as I walked along.

Even better, it helped me block out some of the thoughts of the people around me.

Butchers, bakers, and other merchants were already hawking their wares from their shop doorways and freestanding carts, while customers were haggling over the prices of everything from cuts of meat to bags of cornucopia to bolts of cloth. The loud, cheery commotion was bad enough, but the steady stream of internal thoughts was almost deafening to me.

People thought all the time. Every bloody second of every bloody day. And being around so many people meant multitudes of thoughts flying through the air like hundreds of invisible bees incessantly buzzing in my ears.

My gargoyle pendant grew warm against my skin, like a hot stone pressing against my chest. The pieces of black jet were blocking and absorbing as many thoughts as they could, but there were simply too many people for the jewels to silence all the mental chatter.

Gotta sell this meat before it spoils . . .

This cornucopia is stale . . .

I can find a better price for this blue silk . . .

Those silent thoughts and dozens more assaulted me as I hurried through one of the plazas. Hearing all those murmurs in my own mind was exhausting, like being forced to listen to music that never slowed down, took a break, or stopped. Even worse, I could also sense people’s emotions, which added to the perpetual cacophony in my head and my heart.

At times like these, I didn’t feel like a puppeteer with strings attached to my fingertips, skillfully manipulating everything around me. No, right now I was a tiny, fragile ship caught in a raging storm, with waves of thoughts slapping me to and fro in a sea of emotion, and everything from icy disdain to lukewarm interest to sizzling anger cascading over my battered deck.

Topacia and I stepped onto a less crowded street. The incessant buzzing in my ears faded away, my pendant cooled against my skin, and my internal ship slowly righted itself as the storm of chattering people receded. I sighed with relief.

We circled around to the back side of Blauberg Mountain. This area was mostly shops, all designed to serve the workers heading toward the mine. The street opened up into an enormous plaza, which was lined with merchant carts. A gray stone fountain shaped like a gargoyle with its wings spread out wide stood in the center of the plaza, and several miners stopped to throw a penny into the bubbling water. Andvarian mines were among the safest on the Buchovian continent, but it never hurt to ask the gods for a little bit of luck before going down into the dark.