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

Beyond the fountain, a low stone wall cordoned off the rest of the plaza from the mine, and a black hole dominated this side of the mountain, as though it were a kraken’s mouth frozen open in an enormous yawn. Carts filled with jagged chunks of raw ore rolled out of the main opening, along with the surrounding side shafts, and skated along metal tracks toward a large building in the distance.

Inside the refinery, miners would carefully chisel the tearstone, gemstones, and anything else of value out of the surrounding mundane rock. Then the tearstone, gemstones, and the like would be further processed, cut, shaped, and polished, until the final products were ready to be shipped out to their buyers.

I jerked my head at Topacia, and we slipped into an alley that ran between two bakeries.

Topacia eyed the people moving along the street. “I’ve heard rumors that some Mortans are in Blauberg. Not just common merchants, but wealthy, high-ranking nobles, along with their guards, although I haven’t seen them for myself—yet.”

While I was staying at the cottage and working in the mine, Topacia had been renting a room in one of the city’s inns, as well as visiting shops and taverns. In addition to being a fearsome warrior, my friend also loved to talk to people. Topacia had never met a stranger, and she excelled at picking up gossip and casually asking all the questions that I wanted answered. Her news about Mortans being in Blauberg increased my own suspicions.

Andvari and Morta were old, bitter enemies, and the Morricone royal family had long coveted the Ripley mines, which were full of precious metals, gems, and more. But one of the most defining moments in the centuries of hostilities between the two kingdoms was the Seven Spire massacre.

Roughly sixteen years ago, King Maximus Morricone of Morta had sent his bastard sister, Maeven, to assassinate the Blair royal family of Bellona. Even worse, Maeven had blamed the attack on my uncle, Prince Frederich Ripley, and a group of Andvarians who had been visiting Seven Spire palace in Bellona at the time.

I was one of a handful of people who had survived the horrific tragedy.

I had been twelve back then, but sometimes, it seemed like only yesterday that Crown Princess Vasilia Blair had plunged a dagger into Uncle Frederich’s heart during a luncheon on the royal lawn, then killed Lord Hans, an Andvarian ambassador, with her lightning magic. After that, I’d hidden under a table like a coward and watched the turncoat guards slaughter everyone around me.

Screams and shrieks rattled around inside my mind, punctuated by softer but even more agonizing whimpers of pain and fear, along with choked, tearful pleas for mercy.

But there had been no mercy—only death.

I would have died too, if Everleigh Blair hadn’t yanked me out of my hiding spot, dragged me across the grass, and handed me off to Lady Xenia Rubin, a powerful ogre morph.

I still remembered the exact moment when Xenia’s arm had closed around my waist, tighter than a coldiron vise, and she had hoisted me into the air as though I weighed no more than a baby gargoyle. Maeven had blasted Xenia with her purple lightning, trying to stop our escape, but Xenia had kept going, and eventually, we had made it inside the palace.

From there, Alvis, who had been the Seven Spire royal jeweler at the time, had helped us escape through some old mining tunnels that ran underneath the palace, although it had taken us weeks to make it home to Andvari.

After the massacre, Andvari and Bellona had been on the brink of war—until Everleigh had exposed the Mortans’ plot, killed her treacherous cousin Vasilia, and taken the Bellonan throne for herself.

King Maximus was long dead, but Queen Maeven ruled now, so tensions between Andvari and Morta remain high to this day, and the two kingdoms were always little more than a whisper away from war.

But lately, those whispers had grown into much louder, far more ominous rumblings.

“Gemma?” Topacia asked, breaking into my dark thoughts. “What do you want me to do about the Mortans? If they knew you were here, especially one of the Morricone royals, then they would stop at nothing to kidnap you—or worse.”

Screams wailed in my mind again. I was well acquainted with how much worse things could get when dealing with the Morricones. Still, I forced myself to be logical. Acting on assumptions could easily get Topacia and me killed.

“There are always a few Mortans in Blauberg, given how close it is to the border,” I said. “After all, this is one of the few cities where trade between the two kingdoms is actually necessary and encouraged, due to the surrounding mountains and wilderness.”