Bestselling author Jennifer Estep returns to her Crown of Shards world with an all-new trilogy and a bold new heroine who protects her kingdom from magic, murder, and mayhem by moonlighting as a spy.
Gemma Ripley has a reputation for being a pampered princess who is more interested in pretty gowns, sparkling jewelry, and other frivolous things than learning how to rule the kingdom of Andvari. But her carefully crafted persona is just an act to hide the fact that Gemma is a powerful mind magier—and a spy.
Gemma is undercover, trying to figure out who is stealing large amounts of tearstone from one of the Ripley royal mines when she encounters Prince Leonidas Morricone of Morta—her mortal enemy. Gemma tries to steer clear of the handsome prince, but when she finds herself behind enemy lines, she reluctantly joins forces with Leo. Also coming to Gemma’s aid is Grimley, her beloved gargoyle.
Despite the fact that Andvari and Morta are old, bitter enemies, a dangerous attraction sparks between Gemma and Leo. Further complicating matters is Leo’s murderous family, especially Queen Maeven Morricone, the mastermind behind the infamous Seven Spire massacre.
The closer Gemma gets to the stolen tearstone, the more deadly plots she uncovers. Everyone is trying to capture the crown, but only one queen can sit on the throne …
Release date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Print pages: 464
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) creative magic (1) entertaining story (1) great world-building (1) imaginative (1) twists & turns (1)
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Capture the Crown
I love being a princess.
The beautiful gowns. The sparkling jewels. The scrumptious food. And of course shopping for balls, dancing at balls, and flirting at balls. Oh, yes. I love all those things and many more.
Perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way. After all, most royals have horrible reputations. Queens are cold, kings are cruel, princes are pompous. If you asked, most people would say that I was a pampered princess. Why, I would probably top the list of the mostpampered princesses, both on the continent of Buchovia and the ones beyond, something that fills me with an inordinate amount of pride. If you’re going to be known as something, then you should be known as the very best at it. And I bloody excel at being Gemma Armina Merilde Ripley, crown princess of Andvari, known far and wide as a fashion trendsetter, excellent dancer, and skillful flirt.
But there is one thing I love more than being a princess—being a spy.
“Are you ready, Gemma?” a voice asked.
I looked over at the fifty-something woman standing along the wall. Several strands of silver glimmered in her dark brown hair, which was pulled back into a bun, while lines were grooved into her bronze skin, especially around her hazel eyes, as if she had spent years perpetually squinting in worry. With me as her charge, that was exactly what she’d done.
The woman was dressed in a dark gray tunic, along with black leggings and boots. No crests or symbols adorned her clothes, but the silver sword and matching dagger hanging from her black leather belt hinted that she was far more than the commoner she appeared to be.
I smiled at Topacia, my longtime personal guard. “Almost. Just double-checking my disguise.”
I studied my reflection in the freestanding mirror in the corner of the living room. As soon as we had secretly arrived in Blauberg last week, I had packed away my gowns and jewelry. Then I had chopped off my long dark brown hair to shoulder level and dyed it black, so that I would look slightly different from my normal self, although I hadn’t bothered changing the curve of my cheeks or the shape of my nose with a beauty-glamour ring. There was no point, since my pale skin would be covered with grime the second I stepped into the mine.
My now-black hair was pulled back into a low ponytail that was tucked underneath the gray, ridged metal helmet that topped my head. Like Topacia, I was also wearing a dark gray tunic and black leggings, although they were currently hidden beneath my light gray coveralls. Sturdy black work boots covered my feet.
The thread masters at Glitnir, the Andvarian royal palace, would probably faint if they saw my miner’s outfit, which was a far cry from the silks, satins, and velvets I usually wore. I didn’t mind dressing down, although I did wish that the coveralls were softer and that the heavy-duty canvas didn’t scratch the back ofmy neck. Perhaps I could lobby for more comfortable uniforms for my kingdom’s miners once I was back in Glitnir.
Everyone at the palace would probably snicker, thinking that such a proposal was the height of foolishness, but I had spent enough time in heavy tiaras, constricting corsets, and pinching shoes to know how important it was to be comfortable, especially when working. And dancing at balls and hobnobbing with nobles was work. Besides, such a seemingly ridiculous idea would fit in perfectly with my carefully crafted persona.
To most people, Princess Gemma Ripley was a pretty decoration, another jewel among the scores that glittered, glistened, and gleamed at Glitnir, and I had no intention of disabusing anyone of the notion that I was all sparkle and no substance. Being underestimated had helped me more than once, especially on my secret missions, and this undertaking was far more important than most.
Topacia studied me. “Cutting and dyeing your hair certainly helped, although perhaps you should reconsider wearing a glamour ring and change your eye color too.” A smile tugged up her lips. “Especially since you have the bluest eyes in all the kingdoms.Isn’t that how the song goes?”
I groaned at her joke. A few years ago, for my twenty-fifth birthday, a potential suitor and music master had composed “The Bluest Crown,” an admittedly catchy, fast-paced tune about how the blue of my eyes matched the sapphires in one of the Ripley royal crowns. To my horror, the song had spread like wildfire through Andvari and all the other kingdoms. Now people almost always sang the song, or at least performed an instrumental version, whenever I made an official appearance as Princess Gemma. I had enjoyed the song—the first few times I’d heard it. But now, hundreds of screechy, off-key renditions later, the mere thought of it made me grind my teeth.
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.”
“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?
I stuck my tongue out at the gargoyle, just like I had done ever since I was a child. He grunted with amusement, closed his eyes, and returned to his nap, with his stubby legs still sticking up in the air.
Grimley was right. I could take care of myself, despite my pampered princess persona. As a mind magier, I had the ability to move objects with just a thought, hear people’s private musings, and walk through dreams, among other things. I was far more powerful and much more dangerous than most folks realized—when my magic actually worked.
An old, familiar worry throbbed like a jagged splinter embedded deep in my heart, and I stood up, grabbed the silver chain around my neck, and pulled it out from underneath my clothes.
A pendant dangled from the end of the chain. The base was silver, while the small pieces of black jet arranged on top formed a snarling gargoyle face—the Ripley royal crest. Tiny midnight-blue tearstone shards made up the gargoyle’s horns, eyes, nose, and teeth, turning the design into Grimley’s face.
The pendant had been a gift from Alvis, the Andvarian royal jeweler and metalstone master. Alvis was one of the few people who knew all the terrible things I could do with my magic, and he had crafted the pendant years ago to help me harness my power. The pieces of black jet helped me block out people’s mundane thoughts, while the blue tearstone shards would deflect others’ powers, if I was ever attacked. The blue jewels could also absorb and store my own magic, giving me an extra boost of power should I ever need it, although I had never used the shards in that way.
I always wore the gargoyle pendant, and I didn’t take it off for anything or anyone, no matter how many times Yaleen, my thread master, complained that it clashed with her designs.
I was too afraid of what would happen—of what I might do—if I ever removed the pendant.
I rubbed my thumb over the tearstone shards embedded in the gargoyle’s face. The soft pricks of the jewels against my skin eased my throbbing worry, and I tucked the necklace back underneath my coveralls. The light touch of the silver chain around my neck and especially the heavier pendant close to my heart further steadied me.
Think of the pendant like a miniature version of Grimley protecting you, Alvis’s voice rumbled in my mind. That had been his kind, evasive way of saying the dark truth we both knew—that the pendant was more for everyone else’s protection than it was for mine.
I went over and grabbed a dagger from a nearby table. The weapon was made of light gray tearstone, with Grimley’s snarling face inlaid in black jet and blue tearstone in the hilt. Another gift from Alvis. A matching sword and shield, each boasting the same crest, also lay on the table, but those weapons were far too large and obvious to take into the mine.
I slid the dagger into a black leather sheath and tucked it into the side of my right boot. Then I grabbed a gray tin lunch box from the table and looked at Topacia again. “Let’s go. It’s time for Miner Gemma to report for work.”
* * *
Topacia and I left Grimley snoozing by the fireplace and stepped outside. The cottage Topacia had rented for me under a false name stood off by itself in a patch of woods, but I still reached out with my magic to confirm that we were alone.
Everything had its own energy, a layer of power that surrounded it, whether it was an assassin skulking through the woods, a butterfly fluttering its wings on a tree branch, or a rock hidden in the grass. As a mind magier, I could mentally reach out and manipulate that energy, whether it was tripping an assassin, flicking a butterfly off its perch, or prying a rock out of the ground and sending it careening down a hill.
When I was younger, and first learning how to control my power, I used to pretend that I was a puppeteer, with invisible strings attached to my fingertips that connected to everyone and everything around me. All I had to do was grasp or release, or push or pull on those strings to make things happen—for better or worse.
I didn’t sense anyone lurking in the woods, and the smallest thought was all it took to make the front door swing shut behind us. I waved my hand, manipulating the invisible strings of energy connected to the door, and the lock turned as well.
We stepped onto a dirt trail that led to a gray cobblestone road teeming with foot, carriage, and wagon traffic. It was just after seven o’clock, and people were streaming into the city to go to work.
As was the case in much of Andvari, mining was the main industry in Blauberg, a moderate-size city located a scant three miles from the Mortan border. Most people walking along the road wore gray coveralls and ridged helmets, marking them as miners, while the wealthier nobles and merchants rolled by in carriages and wagons.
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.
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.”
“But what about your theory that the Morricones are plotting something?” Topacia asked. “At least, something more dastardly than usual?”
Over the past two months, through my network of sources, I’d learned of several disturbing incidents in Andvari, all of them close to the Mortan border. A caravan of merchants murdered by bandits. A cave-in at a small mine that had claimed the lives of several workers. A group of royal guards who’d been swept away by a violent thunderstorm and the resulting flash flood.
On their own, each tragedy had seemed like an unrelated incident, but when considered all together, they had roused my suspicions. So as part of my ambassador duties, I had spent the past few weeks visiting the site of every attack and mishap. Along with offering my condolences to the victims’ families, I’d discreetly conducted my own investigations, and I’d discovered one common thread between all the incidents—tearstone.
The merchant caravan, the mine, and the guards had all had hundreds of pounds of tearstone in their possession—ore that had never been recovered.
Tearstone was often used for jewelry and art, but it could also be crafted into weapons, like the dagger in my boot. My theory was that someone was stockpiling tearstone—someone in Morta, given that all the incidents had occurred within just a few miles of the border. Of course, the most likely suspects were the Morricones, specifically Queen Maeven, although a few Mortan noble families were also wealthy and powerful enough to make all that tearstone vanish without a trace.
As for what that person wanted with the ore, well, I doubted their plans included anything as benign as making necklaces or statues, given the dozens of people they’d already killed. My fear was that Maeven was going to somehow use the tearstone to try to assassinate my father and grandfather—again.
Several months after the Seven Spire massacre, the Bastard Brigade, a group of Morricone bastard-born royals, had tried to murder my father and had dosed my grandfather with amethyst-eye poison. Thanks to Queen Everleigh’s intervention, Father and Grandfather Heinrich had both survived, but just barely.
I had already lost Uncle Frederich to Maeven’s machinations, and she wasn’t going to take anyone else from me.
But I’d grown even more worried two weeks ago, when a forewoman named Clarissa had sent a letter to Glitnir, to Grandfather Heinrich, saying that several shipments of tearstone had disappeared from the Blauberg mine—much larger shipments than what had vanished so far.
Things went missing all the time in mines, since they were literally dark holes in the ground, so my grandfather and father hadn’t thought much of the letter. But to me, it was another suspicious incident in an increasingly long and alarming chain of tragedies—especially since Clarissa had died in a mining accident three days later.
Clarissa’s death had struck me as entirely too convenient, so I had rushed to Blauberg to investigate. I had been too late to gather much intelligence at the other sites, but I was hoping this time would be different.
“My theory is just a theory—until I find proof that it’s not,” I said, finally answering Topacia. “Go back into the city, and see if you can pick up any more gossip about the Mortan nobles. I’ll work my shift and try to figure out who is smuggling tearstone out of the mine.”
Topacia nodded, slipped out of the alley, and left.
I started to head toward the mine when something brushed up against my mind. The new, unexpected presence was as soft as a feather tickling my skin, but I still froze. No thoughts buzzed in my ears, but my gargoyle pendant grew warm against my chest again, and my fingertips tingled as though I were clutching a lightning bolt. The tingling sensation meant one worrisome thing—that someone or something around here had magic.
Very powerful magic.
My gaze swept over the street, the plaza, and the mine entrance, but everything was the same. Miners trudging to work, merchants hawking their wares, carts of ore rattling along the metal tracks.
A shadow zoomed by overhead, momentarily blotting out the sun, and that faint presence brushed up against my mind again. Who—or what—was that?
I grabbed the dagger out of my boot and walked to the opposite end of the alley. Then I reached out with my magic, searching for that faint presence. It was over . . . there.
I slipped from one alley to the next like I was chasing a feather drifting along on the breeze. Eventually, the last alley opened up into a wooded area, and I darted into the trees and crept forward, peering around a maple to find . . .
A strix standing in the clearing beyond.
The hawklike bird was similar to Grimley in that it was roughly the size of a horse, only with a much thicker, stronger body. The strix’s feathers were a vibrant amethyst-purple, and onyx tips lined its broad, powerful wings, each point as hard, sharp, and deadly as the arrow it resembled. The bird’s big, bright eyes were the same amethyst as its feathers, while its pointed beak and curved talons were a shiny black. A beautiful if dangerous creature.
Many strixes lived in the surrounding Spire Mountains, and the wild birds often zoomed over Blauberg, although they tended to fly high and fast to avoid the gargoyles, since the two species didn’t much care for each other. I didn’t see a saddle or any reins on this strix, but it didn’t seem like a wild bird. So where was its owner?
“See, Lyra?” a deep, masculine voice sounded, as if answering my silent question. “I told you the ride over the mountains wouldn’t be too bad.”
“Know-it-all,” the strix chirped in a high, singsong voice, although her tone was full of affection.
A man stepped around the side of the strix. He looked to be a year or two older than me, thirty or so. His longish hair was as black and glossy as the onyx points on the strix’s wings, while his eyes were a deep, dark amethyst. He had sharp, angular cheekbones, along with a straight nose, and his skin had the tanned look of someone who spent a fair amount of time outdoors.
He wore black leggings and boots, along with gloves and a long black riding coat. A black cloak topped his coat, and the layers of fabric outlined his tall, muscled body and gave him a commanding presence. A light gray tearstone sword and matching dagger dangled from his black leather belt, but I got the sense that the weapons weren’t nearly as dangerous as the man himself was.
He turned toward me, and I spotted a crest done in silver thread on his coat, right over his heart—a fancy cursive M surrounded by a ring of strix feathers.
Shock jolted through me. Topacia had been right. There was a Mortan in the city.
Prince Leonidas Luther Andor Morricone, the son of Queen Maeven Morricone, second in line for the Mortan throne.
My mortal enemy.
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