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

Someday—but not today.

Still, the prince and the strix were gone, so I left the woods and headed back toward the mine. If Leonidas Morricone was here to pilfer more tearstone, then I needed to figure out who was helping him. Once I had identified his source, then I could take steps to keep the precious resource out of the prince’s clutches.

And maybe, just maybe, I could finally take my revenge on Leonidas for how he had betrayed me all those years ago.

* * *

I doubled back through the alleys and over to the plaza. I paused a moment to dig a penny out of my pocket and toss it into the gargoyle fountain for luck, then fell in line with the other workers trudging toward the mine entrance.

A woman smiled when she caught sight of me. Her long dark red hair was pulled back into a braid that was partially tucked underneath her helmet. Her eyes were a light blue, and freckles dotted her milky cheeks. She was also wearing gray coveralls, and a lunch box dangled from her hand.

“Hey, Gemma,” she said in a soft, lilting voice. “Running late too?”

I might have cut and dyed my hair and stuffed myself into a miner’s uniform, but I hadn’t bothered to change my name. Gemma was very common, thanks to, well, me.

After I had been born, the name had become quite popular in Andvari, just as Everleigh had taken on a frenzied popularity in Bellona ever since Everleigh Blair had been crowned queen some sixteen years ago. All the royals’ names were in vogue to some extent, so I had felt safe enough using my real name in Blauberg. Besides, not having to remember to answer to another name made my spying much easier.

I smiled back at the other woman. “Yeah, I’m still finding my way around the city, and I went down the wrong street. Why are you late, Penelope?”

I had met Penelope when I’d started working in the mine two days ago. There weren’t many women here, so she had come over and introduced herself. I had liked her immediately, especially given her inherent cheerfulness, and Penelope had been showing me around ever since. A few butterflies of guilt fluttered in my stomach that I was using her to gather information on the other miners, but I swatted them away. As a princess and especially as a spy, I couldn’t afford to indulge in such a treacherous emotion as guilt.

Penelope smiled again. “Oh, my daughter needed some extra help getting ready for school.”

We reached the mine entrance, and she fell silent and faced forward.

Going from the morning sunshine into the darker confines of the mine was like stepping into a different realm, as though I had traveled through a Cardea mirror, an enchanted glass that let people see and talk to each other over great distances, as well as move from one place to another. In an instant, the crisp mountain air turned ten degrees cooler, and the natural sunlight gave way to black iron lanterns filled with round fluorestones. The lanterns hung on the walls like strings of popcorn on a yule tree, while the glowing fluorestones inside ranged in shade and intensity from cool, moody blue to bright, piercing white. The combined lights and colors painted the inside of the mine a pale, muted gray.

This first, topmost level was called Basecamp, since it was the base for all the mine’s operations, both aboveground and below. The front part was an enormous hollow dome, with a hard-packed dirt floor, curved walls, and a ceiling that soared several hundred feet overhead. Carts filled with chunks of ore and buckets of tools squeaked, creaked, and rattled along the metal tracks that crisscrossed the ground. Adding to the commotion were the miners loading carts, hauling empty buckets away, and calling out directions to each other.

I drew in a deep breath to steady myself. Then I exhaled, reached out with my magic, and carefully skimmed the thoughts of everyone around me.

When I was first learning how to use my magic, Alvis had told me to picture my mind magier power as some task that I could complete, that I could control. Skimming thoughts was like leaning over the deck of my tiny internal ship and dipping my fingers into the sea of emotion that constantly ebbed and flowed all around me.

In some ways, skimming thoughts was much harder than moving objects. I could easily ignore the strings of energy surrounding people and objects, but once I dipped my fingers into that endless, churning sea, anything could happen.

Oh, I could hear people’s whispered thoughts easily enough, but dealing with their emotions was much more difficult. Alvis had told me to treat other people’s feelings as things that I could experience for a moment, then set aside. Like someone’s seething jealousy was only a pinprick of pain, as though a thread master had accidentally poked me with a needle. Or boiling anger was nothing more than heat from a fireplace warming my face. Or bitter rage was merely an icy rain pelting my skin before dropping away. Brief discomforts that I could brush aside as quickly as I could close a book I had finished reading.