Magic reigns, plots abound, and a new love might not conquer all, in this must-read finale to the epic Gargoyle Queen trilogy by international bestselling author Jennifer Estep.
Time is running out for crown princess Gemma Ripley. Despite being a cunning spy and a powerful mind magier, Gemma hasn’t been able to track down the most dangerous enemy her kingdom of Andvari has ever seen. Adding to her worries is the Sword and Shield tournament. With gladiators flocking to the capital city of Glanzen, Gemma can’t tell who is friend—or foe.
Determined to protect Andvari at any cost, Gemma hatches a bold plan, but things aren’t what they seem. Soon, everything she holds dear is being threatened, including her burgeoning relationship with Prince Leonidas Morricone.
With the kingdom she holds dear slipping through her fingers, Gemma will have to conquer her fear and unlock the true secret of her magic—or watch her friends and family die and her beloved Andvari fall . . .
Supplemental enhancement PDF accompanies the audiobook.
Release date: March 7, 2023
Print pages: 432
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) creative magic (1) emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (1) great world-building (1) happily ever after (1) high adventure (1) satisfying ending (1) twists & turns (1)
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Conquer the Kingdom
I’ve played a lot of parts in my life.
My most frequent and famous role is that of Gemma Armina Merilde Ripley, crown princess of Andvari, also snidely known as Glitzma. I suppose Princess Gemma is who I am, for better or worse.
But it’s not all that I am.
Princess Gemma is just one part of my persona, a carefully crafted role that enables me to travel throughout Andvari and into the kingdoms beyond, spying on those who would harm my people, gathering intelligence on their schemes, and thwarting their plots both great and small.
Being a spy is much more useful and far more satisfying than being a princess. In recent weeks, I had masqueraded as everything from a miner to a jewelry maker to a gladiator. Right now I was playing a new part, one that just might be my most important role yet.
I crouched down, eased forward, and peered around the side of a large wooden crate. Similar crates were stacked all along the riverfront, while thick ropes were curled up like coral vipers on the grimy flagstones. Small rowboats rested on the muddy shore in the distance, and the watery stench of fish filled the November air. Everything looked perfectly normal, and my gaze moved over to a ship tied to a dock that stretched out into the Summanus River.
The vessel was the biggest one along the riverfront, with masts that towered high in the air. The ship’s hull might have been a bright cobalt at one time, although the elements had weathered and dulled the wood to the same murky blue gray as the river. The only real bits of color were the bloodred letters on the side that spelled out the vessel’s name—The Drowned Man. I hoped the name was an omen of things to come, although drowning would be a much quicker and far more merciful death than what my prey deserved.
“Do you really think Milo is on that ship?” a voice murmured.
I glanced over at the woman crouching beside me. She was wearing a dark green cloak over a matching tunic, along with black leggings and boots, and a sword dangled from her black leather belt. Her long black hair was pulled back
into a fishtail braid, and her emerald-green eyes and golden skin gleamed in the growing dawn, as did the dragon face with emerald-green scales and black eyes that adorned her right hand. All morphs had some sort of tattoo-like mark on their bodies that indicated what larger, stronger creature was lurking inside them.
Despite the burgeoning light, Lady Reiko Yamato, my friend and fellow spy, remained almost invisible in the departing shadows. Even though I was dressed the same way, in a dark blue cloak and tunic, I felt as exposed as a gladiator standing in the middle of an arena floor. But even if the noontime sun had been shining brightly, Reiko still would have found a way to blend in to her surroundings. She was simply that skilled a spy—the best, in my opinion.
Reiko and I had been watching The Drowned Man for more than half an hour. No one had approached the vessel, and no one had appeared on the deck. The riverfront was eerily quiet, except for the steady slap-slap-slap of water up against the ship’s hull and the whistling breeze that ruffled its dingy sails.
“Do you really think Milo is on that ship?” Reiko repeated.
“Let me see if I can find out.”
I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, reached out with my magic, and scanned the ship. As a mind magier, I could sense when other people were nearby, especially if I’d had dealings with them before. Unfortunately, I knew Crown Prince Milo Maximus Moreland Morricone of Morta far better than I wanted to.
A few months ago, dozens of merchants, miners, and guards had been killed along the Andvari-Morta border. Some had died in a bandit attack. Others in a mine collapse. And several people had been swept away by a violent, sudden storm. King Heinrich and Crown Prince Dominic Ripley, my grandfather and father, had assumed the incidents were senseless tragedies, but the deaths of so many people so close together had struck me as extremely suspicious. As Princess Gemma, I had visited each site to offer my condolences to the victims’ families, and I’d discovered something deeply concerning—large amounts of tearstone had been stolen at every spot.
My investigation had eventually led me to Blauberg, a city near the Andvari-Morta border. As Miner Gemma, I’d gone undercover and realized that Conley, the mine foreman, was stealing and selling tearstone to Mortan guards. Conley had shoved me into a chasm and left me for dead, but I’d been rescued and taken to Myrkvior, the royal palace in Majesta, the capital city of Morta.
Despite the danger, being at Myrkvior had been a golden opportunity to figure out which Mortan was ultimately stockpiling the tearstone and why, so I had played yet another part—Armina, a noble lady and jewelry maker. But my disguise wasn’t as good as I’d thought, and Queen
Maeven Morricone had revealed my true identity as Princess Gemma Ripley at her own birthday ball.
And then she had let Milo torture me.
The riverfront flickered and vanished, along with The Drowned Man. Suddenly, I was back in Milo’s workshop, staring down at my own unconscious body chained to a table. Whipped back, punctured hands, burned skin. Blood dripped out of my wounds and hit the stone, every soft drop-drop-drop blaring as loud as a bell in my mind. Even though the torture had happened a couple of months ago, my heart still picked up speed, my breath puffed out in ragged gasps, and sweat prickled the back of my neck.
Desperate to stave off more unwanted memories, I grabbed the silver pendant hanging off the chain around my neck and focused on the bits of black jet that glittered in the shape of a snarling gargoyle face—the Ripley royal crest. Tiny midnight-blue shards of tearstone formed the gargoyle’s horns, eyes, nose, and teeth, turning the crest into the face of Grimley, my own beloved gargoyle. The same jeweled crest was embedded in the light gray tearstone dagger hanging off my belt. Alvis, the Glitnir royal jeweler, had made the pendant and the dagger for me years ago, when I was first learning how to control my mind magier magic—something I still struggled with to this day.
I squeezed the pendant tight, making a dull ache ripple through my fingers. That uncomfortable sensation, combined with the sharp prick of the jewels against my skin, helped me force the memories away. Milo’s workshop vanished, and the riverfront snapped back into focus, although the abrupt change in scenery made my head spin.
“Gemma?” Reiko asked. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I lied.
I released the necklace. The soft, familiar thump of the pendant against my heart further steadied me, and my head slowly stopped spinning.
Reiko arched an eyebrow, clearly not believing my lie, but I ignored her concerned look. Compared to all the times when my magic threw me back into the distant past and completely immersed and overwhelmed me with memories, this brief glimpse of my own tortured self was a relatively minor annoyance.
“If you’re so fine, then why are you rubbing your hands?” she asked.
I had been massaging first one palm, then the other, trying to rub the dull aches out of my hands and snuff out the hot sparks of phantom pain twinging my fingertips. I froze mid-rub and lowered my arms to my sides.
Reiko’s face remained blank, but her inner dragon grimaced, and its black gaze skittered away from mine. Milo’s barbed arrows and lightning magic had scarred my hands, both front and back, as though someone had painted vivid red starbursts onto my skin.
My fingers clenched into fists, reigniting those dull aches and hot sparks, but I didn’t mind the pain now. It further
fueled my determination to find out if Milo was truly on The Drowned Man—and if so, to finally kill him for everything he’d done to me.
So I exhaled and reached out with my magic again. This time, the riverfront remained still and solid, and I examined the ship.
In addition to telling when other people were nearby, I could also hear their thoughts and sense their emotions. Ironically enough, given our current location, I had always pictured that aspect of my mind magier magic as though I were leaning over the deck of my own tiny internal ship and dipping my fingers into the sea of other people’s musings and feelings, which constantly churned around me.
Right now, that sea was utterly calm, and I didn’t hear any whispered thoughts or sense so much as a flicker of emotion. No sizzling anger, no icy malevolence, nothing that would indicate Milo or anyone else was nearby. The ship could be completely empty or full of sleeping sailors.
I let out a frustrated breath, released my power, and shook my head. “I don’t think he’s on the ship, but I can’t be certain. Not without us actually going on board and searching the vessel.”
Reiko’s hand dropped to her sword. “Well, we might as well get on with it.”
This time, I arched an eyebrow at her. “Isn’t this the point where you tell me it might be a trap? That Milo might have a dozen men hiding belowdecks just waiting to rush out and kill us?”
She snorted. “If I have to tell you that, then you haven’t been paying attention to everything that’s happened, especially a few weeks ago during the Summit.”
I grimaced. The Summit was supposed to be a peaceful meeting of nobles, merchants, guilders, and leaders of the various kingdoms to discuss trade agreements—but this year, it had devolved into a bloodbath.
Milo had attended the Summit as part of the Mortan contingent, and he had been working with Corvina Dumond, his fiancée and a powerful weather magier. Milo had wanted Corvina to kill me, along with his younger half brother, Leonidas, but the noble lady had been determined to kill all the Morricones, especially Queen Maeven, and capture the Mortan crown for herself.
During the Summit, Corvina had ordered the Dumond fighters to attack all the other royals in attendance, including my father. I’d managed to kill Corvina, but Milo had escaped, along with Captain Wexel, his loyal guard and Corvina’s secret lover.
Afterward, Crown Prince Dominic Ripley had joined forces with some of the other royals to put an enormous bounty on Milo—one hundred thousand gold crowns. According to my sources, every bounty hunter and mercenary on the Buchovian continent was searching for Milo so they could collect the reward.
And I had joined their ranks.
In public, Princess Gemma was performing her usual duties as a traveling ambassador, going from city to city in Andvari and meeting with nobles, merchants, and the like. But in private, Reiko and I had spent the last few weeks tracking Milo from one hiding spot to the next. A deserted farm just outside of Caldwell. An inn near Haverton. A tavern on the outskirts of Blauberg. The crown prince had been running like a deer, trying to escape the bounty hunters’ greed, as well as the wildfire of my wrath.
I reached out to every source I had in every city we visited, asking for news and gossip, and I had read dozens of letters from people all across Buchovia, scanning them for the smallest scrap of information about Milo and Wexel. A couple of times, Reiko and I had gotten oh so close to the Mortans, missing them by mere hours, which only added to my anger and frustration.
I might have embraced this new bounty-hunter persona, but I didn’t care about collecting any reward. I just wanted to find and kill Milo before he hurt anyone else.
Especially my gargoyles.
Despite the bloodshed at the Summit, I had finally figured out one of Milo’s main goals—to slaughter Andvarian gargoyles. With their stone skin, gargoyles were largely indestructible, although they were vulnerable to the crown prince’s tearstone arrows, which were coated with dried fool’s bane flowers.
I still wasn’t sure how killing gargoyles would help Milo conquer my kingdom, but I was certain it was only part of some larger, deadlier scheme, which is why I wanted to find and eliminate him as soon as possible.
“Gemma?” Reiko asked. “Are you ready to search the ship?”
I shoved my dark thoughts away. “You’re not usually so eager to walk into a potential trap. Most of the time, you’re trying to talk me out of doing something reckless.”
“True. But I also know exactly what you’ll say.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Come on. Say it with me. That boarding the ship is . . .”
I rolled my eyes, but I joined in with her words. “Worth the risk.”
Reiko grinned. “Exactly! So we might as well sneak on board, spring whatever trap Milo and Wexel might have left behind, and get on with our day. If we hurry, we can return to Glitnir before the cook masters run out of those delicious apple-cinnamon scones.”
“Your love of sweet cakes is going to get you in trouble someday,” I teased.
Reiko’s grin widened. “Maybe. Either way, I want some of those scones, so let’s go. Traps and sweet cakes await!”
She stood up, drew her sword, and moved forward. I rolled my eyes again, but a smile spread across my face as I plucked my dagger off my belt and followed my friend.
* * *
Reiko slid from one shadow to the next, as silent as smoke snaking through the air. I crept along behind her, but my boots scraped across the flagstones, making far too much noise. If Milo and Wexel were hiding on The Drowned Man, then they were certain to hear me coming.
As we neared the ship, I reached out with my magic again. For the first time, I sensed several presences on board, like dim candles flickering in a dark room, but I didn’t feel the bright, hot sting of Milo’s lightning or the raw, brute force of Wexel’s strength magic. Perhaps the ship’s thick hull and the churning water were blocking my power.
We stepped onto the dock, and a wooden board creaked ominously under my weight.
Reiko shot me an annoyed look. “Do you have to be so bloody loud, Gemma? You’re tromping around like a gargoyle in a glass shop.”
“Sorry, your royal spyness,” I sniped back. “But some of us aren’t as light on our feet as dragons are.”
She huffed, as did the dragon on her hand, and moved forward. I sighed and followed her, once again trying to be as quiet as possible.
We quickly reached the gangplank that led up to the ship’s main deck. Reiko raised her eyebrows in a silent question, and I shrugged back. I still didn’t sense Milo anywhere nearby.
Yesterday, we’d come across an innkeeper in a nearby village who claimed he’d recently hosted a Mortan noble eager to book passage on a ship headed south from the docks here in Allentown. We’d arrived at the docks several hours ago, closer to midnight than morning. Everyone had already been in bed, which had made it easy for Reiko and me to break into and search the dockmaster’s office.
According to the records, The Drowned Man had sailed into Allentown early yesterday morning, unloaded its passengers and cargo, and taken the rest of the day to resupply. It was supposed to sail back down the Summanus River later today, on a return journey to Fortuna Island, and it was the only vessel here that was large enough to accommodate passengers. If the innkeeper’s information was correct, and Milo was planning to escape on The Drowned Man, then he was either already on board or he’d have to come here sometime soon.
Either way, this was the closest we’d been to him in weeks, and I was determined to finally catch him.
Reiko eased up the gangplank and stepped onto the ship. I followed her, for once managing to be almost as quiet as she was. Weapons in hand, we both glanced around the wide, rectangular deck.
Several barrels filled with arrows were spaced along the railing, with longbows propped up against the sides of the containers. Other barrels featured swords, while spears, many topped with wicked-looking barbs, were nestled in a net that was dangling from the main mast in the center of the deck. Still more spears gleamed a dull silver in another net that was close to the wheel on the starboard side of the ship.
The plethora of weapons wasn’t surprising. Plenty of pirates sailed up and down the Summanus River, boarding ships, murdering sailors, and stealing cargo.
“Could Milo be belowdecks?” Reiko whispered, her breath frosting faintly in the chilly air.
As if in answer to her question, footsteps sounded in the distance, and a sixty-something man climbed a set of steps and ambled out onto the deck. Wavy iron-gray hair brushed the tops of his broad shoulders, and his dark brown skin was covered with even darker freckles from years spent in the sun. His eyes were a light golden-brown, like the glossy varnish that coated the deck, and a jagged scar curved through one of his bushy gray eyebrows, as though he’d been hooked like a fish at some point in his sailing days.
Despite the early hour, the man’s hair was neatly brushed, and the smell of his spicy cologne overpowered the stench of fish in the air. He was wearing a short sandy-brown jacket, along with a matching tunic, leggings, and boots, and the crest of a man’s face with bulging eyes and an open mouth glimmered in gold thread over his heart. That same c
rest was carved into the main mast and marked him as the ship’s captain. A cutlass with a gold hilt dangled from his brown leather belt, along with a spyglass and several long, thin knives. I could easily imagine the captain shedding his jacket, rolling up his tunic sleeves, and gutting the catch of the day with those knives, right along with any sailors who disobeyed him.
The captain yawned and stretched his arms over his head. He glowered up at the sky as if the pretty pink dawn displeased him, then dropped his arms and his gaze back down to the deck.
Reiko jerked her head to the side, silently asking if I wanted to hide behind the barrels, but I shook my head. I was tired of creeping around, especially since the captain might have the answers—and passengers—we were so desperately seeking.
The captain blinked a couple of times, as if surprised to see us standing on his ship, but a grin spread across his face. “I wasn’t expecting visitors this early in the morning. I’m Captain Davies. And who are you two lovely ladies?”
“Armina,” I replied, using my middle name the way I always did whenever I was on a spy mission. “And this is Resplenda.”
Reiko arched an eyebrow, apparently not liking the hastily chosen moniker, but I ignored her chiding glance.
Captain Davies looked us both up and down, his gaze lingering on our breasts and hips. His grin widened, and lust rolled off him in clear, palpable waves, making my stomach churn.
“Have you two ladies come to warm my bed before we set sail? If so, I’ll have to give my crew a bonus for their exceptionally good taste.” He leered at us both, revealing a mouthful of straight gold-capped teeth.
Reiko growled, and smoke boiled out of the mouth of her inner dragon and skated across her skin. Davies’s grin faltered, then vanished altogether. Anyone with even a lick of common sense was wary of morphs, especially dragons. Plus, Reiko looked like she was one more lascivious comment away from charging across the deck and plunging her sword into his chest.
Davies puckered his lips and let out a loud, earsplitting whistle that sounded like a strix’s shrill shriek.
I tensed, as did Reiko. For a few seconds, nothing happened, but then more footsteps clomp-clomp-clomp-clomped, and more than a dozen men climbed the steps and streamed out onto the deck. The men were all wearing dark brown tunics, along with matching leggings and boots, and each one of them was carrying a cutlass. The men spread out across the deck and started leering at us the same way the captain had.
Davies drew his own cutlass and stabbed it at Reiko and me. “What do you want?” he demanded. “If you’ve come to take my ship, then you’re in for a nasty surprise, because the crew of The Dr
wned Man never gives up without a fight.”
The sailors murmured their agreement and hefted their weapons a little higher.
Reiko growled again, ready to fight, but I slid my dagger back into its scabbard, then held my hands up in a placating gesture.
“We’re not here to cause trouble. We just want some information.” I reached down and jiggled the blue velvet bag tied to my belt. “And we’re prepared to pay for it.”
Davies’s eyes brightened at the distinctive sound of coins clink-clink-clinking together. “What kind of information?”
“I want to know if any Mortans have booked passage on your ship—especially any Mortan nobles.”
The captain scratched his chin. “Nope, no nobles have approached me. I only sail down to Fortuna Island and back up here again.” He glanced around. “Has anyone approached you lot?”
The sailors shook their heads, and frustration washed over me. Milo wasn’t here. He had probably never been here, and I had wasted yet more time chasing down another rumor that had led me nowhere. I’d thought Milo was heading south, away from both Andvari and Morta, but it looked like I had been wrong about that, just like I’d been wrong about so many other things lately.
Davies swept his hand out wide, gesturing at the ship. “No Mortans have booked passage, but you lovely ladies are more than welcome to sail with us. I’m certain we could find a good use for the two of you.”
The sailors leered at us again, and waves of lust rolled off them and slammed into my chest. I resisted the urge to snarl at the men.
“Forget it,” Reiko snapped. “We’re leaving.”
Davies grinned again, but cold calculation filled every deep crease and wrinkle on his weathered face. “I can get an excellent price for a pretty little dragon like you at the Fortuna Mint.” His gaze flicked to me. “I won’t get nearly as much for you, but I’m sure someone would add you to their collection.”
My stomach roiled, even as anger scorched through me. Davies and his men weren’t simply sailors hauling cargo up and down the river. No, they were pirates—kidnappers—who waylaid innocent people and sold them to the DiLucris, the wealthy, powerful family who ran the Fortuna Mint. The DiLucris traded in all sorts of unlawful things, but they were especially known for their auctions, which included men, women, and children who were sold to the highest bidders. Supposedly, those folks were indentured servants who could earn back their freedom, but really, they were slaves—and used for much, much worse things than just forced labor. Grandfather Heinrich, along with Queen Everleigh Blair of Bellona, had been trying to shut down the DiLucris’ auctions for years, although they had never been successful.
anger still scorching through my body, I glanced at each man in turn, but I didn’t see any familiar faces. All of these bastards were the sailors they appeared to be. Still, the fact that Reiko and I had just happened to run into pirates was more than a little suspicious.
“Where’s Wexel?” I demanded. “Tell that weasel to show himself.”
Captain Davies frowned, and his eyebrows drew together, forming a solid gray line across his forehead. “Who’s Wexel?”
I opened my mouth to tell him, but he waved his hand.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter who sent you here.” Another cold, calculating grin creased his face. “Because we’re going to have a lot of fun with you and your friend before we deliver you both to the DiLucris.”
Davies puckered his lips and let out another loud, earsplitting whistle. The pirates lifted their weapons and moved forward.
For once, this didn’t appear to be one of Wexel and Milo’s traps, but Reiko and I were in grave danger just the same.
“The way I see it, we only have two options—run or fight,” I murmured.
Reiko snorted, although she never took her gaze off the approaching pirates. “Aren’t those always our only two options?”
“They haven’t thought to block the gangplank yet. You’re the one who wanted scones. If we run now, you can get them a lot faster.”
“And let these bastards find some other women to abduct and sell into slavery?” Reiko growled. “No bloody way.”
I grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Reiko grinned back at me. Magic flared in her eyes, making them burn like green torches, and long black talons sprouted on her fingertips as she partially shifted into her larger, stronger morph form.
I plucked my gargoyle dagger off my belt and twirled it around in my hand, getting it into just the right position. Then, together, we both charged forward.
Reiko ducked the first pirate’s swing, then lashed out and raked her razor-sharp talons across his throat. He screamed and clutched his bloody neck. Reiko shoved him away, then charged forward again, swinging her sword at first one pirate, then another, then another.
I dove into my own pack of pirates. First, I sliced my dagger across one man’s stomach, then turned and buried the blade in another man’s throat. I ripped my weapon free and spun around, searching for a new enemy to kill. A gleam of gold glimmered off to my left. On instinct, I jerked to the side.
I brought my dagger up just in time to block Davies’s cutlass, although the brutal blow knocked me off balance. I lurched backward, my boots skidding on the slick deck, but Davies followed me, swinging his cutlass back and forth in a series of quick, confident strikes. Not only was he an excellent fighter, but Davies was also a mutt, a somewhat derogatory term for someone with a relatively simple, straightforward power, like enhanced strength or speed.
Unfortunately for me, the captain had both.
He swung his cutlass at me over and over again, and it was all I could do to block his hard, fast blows and keep him from knocking the dagger out of my hand. Using both his strength and speed, Davies quickly drove me across the deck. I lunged to the side, and he slammed his cutlass into the railing hard enough to make chips fly up out of the scarred wood. He growled, whirled around, and came at me again.
Davies drove me back in the opposite direction. Two other pirates joined in, and they all took turns lashing out at me time and time again. I dodged yet another blow and whirled around, putting my back to the main mast so they couldn’t attack me from multiple sides at once.
Across the deck, pirates surrounded Reiko, and the dragon morph used her sword, along with her talons, to attack the men, who shrieked and screamed every time one of her vicious swipes connected with their throats, chests, or guts.
Davies stopped and brandished his cutlass at me, as did the other two pirates.
“You shouldn’t have come here, girlie,” the captain crowed, his spicy cologne rapidly turning sour with sweat. “I was going to save you and your friend for myself, but now I’m going to let every man on my crew have a turn with the two of you.”
White-hot rage roared through me at his vile threat, and a st
orm of magic erupted deep inside me, just begging to be unleashed. For a moment, I considered giving in to that rage, that storm, and showing the captain and his men just how dangerous I truly was. But that wouldn’t get me any answers about Milo and Wexel, so instead I stared at each one of my enemies in turn.
“You’re not going to hurt me or my friend or anyone else ever again.”
The other two pirates shifted on their feet at the icy fury in my voice. Davies hesitated, but he quickly found his bravado again.
“And why is that?” he asked, a sneer on his face.
“Because you’re not the only one who brought reinforcements.”
I puckered my lips and let out a loud, earsplitting whistle, just as Davies had done earlier. The captain grimaced, as did the two pirates. They all tensed and glanced over their shoulders, but when no one came running up the gangplank, they pivoted back to me.
Davies sneered at me again. “Seems like your reinforcements didn’t get the message—”
A shadow zipped over the deck, and what looked like a large boulder dropped down from the sky, smashing into the pirate on Davies’s right. The man grunted once, too wounded to even scream as his bones snap-snap-snapped one after another. His arms and legs spasmed for a few seconds, but the pirate swiftly went silent and still as death claimed him.
Everyone on the deck froze, including the pirates who were still battling Reiko. The boulder let out a loud, jaw-cracking yawn and sat upright, morphing into the familiar, blocky shape of a gargoyle.
The gargoyle was about the size of a horse, although his stocky, powerful body was set much lower to the ground. Two curved horns jutted up from his forehead, while black talons protruded from his large, wolfish paws, and a sharp arrow tipped the end of his long tail. His flexible stone skin was a dark gray, with pinprick bits of blue that shimmered in the early morning sunlight. His eyes were also blue, the color rich and deep, like that of the finest sapphires.
Grimley yawned again. Pirates? His low voice rumbled through my mind, sounding like pieces of gravel crunching together underfoot. You woke me up just to battle a bunch of mangy, scurvy pirates?
So sorry my being in mortal danger interferes with your nap schedule. I sent the snide thought back to him.
Putting yourself in mortal danger is becoming a nasty habit, Gemma. Grimley yawned for a third time. Well, since I’m already up, I suppose I should help you. Which pirate do you want me to kill next—
Another shadow dropped down from the sky and landed on the pirate to Davies’s left, crushing him just like Grimley had crushed the other pirate. The shadow perched prettily on the pirate it had just killed, lifting its head and morphing into the sleek shape of a strix.
Like Grimley, the strix was also about the size of a horse, although with a much stronger and more streamlined body, making it resemble an oversize hawk. The creature’s eyes were a dark vibrant amethyst, as were its feathers, which were tipped with razor-sharp pieces of onyx that looked like arrows. Its equally sharp beak and talons were the same shiny, glossy black. Another beautiful, if deadly, creature.
Thank you, Lyra. I sent the thought to the strix.
You’re welcome! Her high singsong voice sounded in my mind. Lyra winked at me, then hopped across the deck and plunged into the group of dumbstruck pirates.
Grimley watched the strix stab her beak into the throat of another enemy. That stupid bird ruins all my fun, his voice grumbled through my mind again.
But he loped over and started battling the pirates side by side with Lyra. The two creatures quickly worked their way over to Reiko, who was once again fighting her own enemies.
I focused on Davies again. “Now, where were we?”
The captain brandished his cutlass. I braced myself for another attack . . . but he whirled around, ran across the deck, and sprinted down the gangplank.
My mouth gaped in surprise, but I hurried over to the railing and glanced down below. Davies was using his mutt speed to its full advantage, and he was rapidly leaving The Drowned Man behind—
A man strode out from behind one of the wooden crates stacked up along the riverfront. He stepped right into Davies’s path, causing the captain to pull up short to keep from crashing into him.
This man was a year or two older than me, thirty or so, with tan skin; sharp, angular cheekbones; and a straight nose. His longish wavy hair gleamed like polished onyx, while his eyes were a deep, dark amethyst that was the same color as Lyra’s feathers. He was wearing a long black riding coat over a black tunic, leggings, and boots, and the layers of fabric perfectly outlined his tall, muscular body. Black gloves covered his hands, and the cool, steady breeze pushed his black cloak back and forth like a hungry greywolf snapping around his legs. A light gray tearstone sword and a dagger dangled from his black leather belt, but he didn’t reach for the blades. Even without a weapon in his hand, this man was still extremely dangerous.
“Who the fuck are you?” Davies asked.
Instead of answering the question, Prince Leonidas Luther Andor Morricone looked up at me.
Dead or alive? he asked, his low, husky voice curling through my mind and sending a shiver down my spine.
Alive, please. The captain might know more than he thinks.
A grin stretched across Leonidas’s face, softening his angular features. As my lady wishes.
“Get out of my way,” Davies snarled. “Or I’ll gut you like a fish.”
Leonidas’s warm, teasing grin vanished. His face settled back into its usual cold, blank mask, and he gave the captain a bored look, as though Davies’s threat was no more worrisome than the winter wind tangling his hair.
“Fine,” Davies snarled again. “Have it your way.”
The captain raised his cutlass and rushed forward. Leonidas waited until the last possible second before calmly, smoothly spinning out of the way. Davies couldn’t stop his reckless charge, and he crashed into one of the wooden crates and bounced off like an oversize ball. ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...