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

Leonidas stopped in front of the girl, who was clutching the lunch box in front of her like it was a gladiator shield that would protect her. Leonidas slowly lowered himself down onto one knee so that his face was level with hers. Then, just as slowly, he held the violet out toward the girl, as though she were a princess that he was offering a courtly token of his affection.

“Hello, there,” he said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “A pretty flower for a pretty girl?”

The girl swayed forward, as transfixed as a bunny by a coral viper’s hypnotic gaze. With her free hand, she plucked the violet out of his fingers, then scuttled back. The motion made the lunch box bang-bang-bang against her knees like a minstrel’s drum. She giggled, but the high, nervous sound was more squeaky fear than genuine amusement.

“Why don’t you run along?” Leonidas suggested in that same gentle voice.

The girl giggled again, then hurried into the woods, going back the way she’d come.

I kept a firm grip on my dagger. The girl might be gone, but I knew exactly how dangerous and duplicitous Leonidas Morricone truly was—concerned one moment, then cruel the next.

He climbed to his feet. “That was close.”

“Too close,” Lyra agreed in her high, singsong voice.

“You’d better find someplace to hide for the day. I’ll nose around the city, and see if I can gather any news or gossip. We’ll meet back here at sunset.”

News? Gossip? It almost sounded like he had come here on a spy mission, just like I had. But why? Blauberg was a busy, prosperous city, but it wasn’t terribly important in the grand scheme of things. Several platoons of Andvarian royal guards were stationed here to keep law and order, as well as to discourage thieves, bandits, and the neighboring Mortans from attacking citizens, but there was nothing of any real strategic value in Blauberg—except for the mine.

My eyes narrowed. Perhaps he was the reason those shipments had gone missing. Perhaps Prince Leonidas was the one who had been murdering my people in order to steal and stockpile tearstone. But why?

I would have to ask—before I killed him.

Leonidas’s back was to me, and he was scanning the far side of the clearing, as if making sure the girl was gone. I could probably sneak up on him before he realized I was there.

But no doubt his strix would launch herself at me the second I attacked her rider. Even though I had trained with my stepmother, Captain Rhea Hans, along with Serilda Swanson and other deadly warriors, I was still wary of a full-grown strix, especially one that had probably been schooled in aerial combat and other warfare.

So as much as it pained me, I held my position in the trees.

Leonidas scanned the clearing again, then went over and stroked Lyra’s side, smoothing his hand over her purple feathers much the same way I had rubbed Grimley’s tummy earlier. The eerie similarity and his obvious love for the creature made me shift on my feet. I had always hated how very much alike the prince and I were.

“Be safe,” he said.

“You too,” Lyra chirped back.

Leonidas adjusted the cloak around his shoulders, draping the black fabric so that it hid the Morricone crest on his coat. I held back a derisive snort. That was even less of a disguise than my short, dyed hair and miner’s coveralls. So he was arrogant, as well as duplicitous.

He disappeared into the woods, heading in the same direction the girl had gone. Lyra spread her wings and shot up into the sky, quickly climbing higher and higher until she too disappeared from sight.

A tense breath escaped my lips, although worry continued to hammer through my body, beating in time to my pounding heart. Suspecting that a Mortan noble was in Blauberg was bad enough, but knowing that a Morricone prince was here was even worse.

Especially this prince—a boy I’d met a lifetime ago, one who had grown into an even more dangerous, powerful man.

I had first encountered the bastard prince years ago in the Spire Mountains when Alvis, Xenia, and I had been fleeing from Bellona after the Seven Spire massacre. Leonidas had found me in the woods and offered me a chance to escape from the turncoat guards who had been chasing us.

Like a fool, I had believed him. But the second I had lowered my guard, he had handed me over to those same men.

I had learned a valuable, if painful, lesson that day—the only thing that truly mattered to Leonidas Morricone was his own survival.

Images flooded my mind, and my own screams echoed in my ears, but I pushed them all away, just as I had the memories of the massacre earlier. Someday, I was going to silence the screams and shove the horrific memories so deep down into my mind and heart that they would never bubble back up to the surface.