A scholar must choose the next ruler of her nation amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Councillor, a magical political thriller from author E. J. Beaton—available now from DAW.
When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.
Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers—especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.
Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.
In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.
Luca wore a black suit of armor with a few silver cobras on the armguards; like his robe, Lysande thought, the plates set off his hair and eyes, lending him a startling beauty. But when he moved, he slipped between definitions, something beyond a prince or a man; his body became a river, each step flowing into the next, unmaking itself, yet promising a flood.
All around the stone tiers, women and men went quiet. There were no jibes or curses this time, nor applause. The prince carried a bow in his hands, a sleek, silver instrument, and his quiver boasted arrows with stems far longer than any Lysande had seen; their ends looked sharp enough to cut diamonds.
“The crowd must like him,” Litany said, turning to Lysande. “They seem quiet.”
Silence in an arena meant something different than silence in a courtroom, Lysande observed. She stared at the figure on the sand. There was no chance of thinking of their neighbors, now.
Luca examined his arrows, running a finger along the edge of one shaft. He did not spare a single glance for the crowd, nor for his opponent, a hulk of a woman, bigger than all of the other three opponents so far; the mercenary was nearly bursting out of her armor, and she wore a helm with thick horns. If the two ever got close enough to drop their bows and trade blows, Lysande did not like the prince of Rhime’s chances.
Yet something about Luca’s movement warned her that he was looking ahead, into moves and counter-moves, seeing all the shifting possibilities and readying himself to shift around them. Lysande guessed that he knew the exact shape and condition of the arrow he was holding. Taking his time, he gave the impression that he had not even noticed the huge mercenary standing opposite him.
The Rhimese fight with their intellect. Sarelin’s tone had not been complimentary when she said that, crouched next to a wounded Axium captain.
“In Lyria, we say a bow is a coward’s weapon,” Jale said, looking over at Lysande. “You just stand back at twenty paces, and—thwing!”
Twenty paces was a very attractive distance indeed, but fifty would not be too much, with an opponent like this mercenary. The woman appeared built of stone.
Flocke raised her hand. The two fighters nocked arrows to their bows and stood still, while the crowd gawked, waiting for a shaft to fly.
Yet Luca did not fire at his opponent. He tilted his bow upward, toward the sky, and sent an arrow whizzing into the clouds. The crowd raised their heads as one, craning for a glimpse of the shaft. So did the mercenary, tilting her thick neck to watch the arrow soar.
The angle of the woman’s chin exposed the gap between her helm and her breastplate: a crack about a half-inch wide, barely visible to the naked eye, but visible nonetheless.
Luca did not miss.
Lysande watched the second arrow fly from his bow and sink into the sliver of flesh. Gasps sounded around the tiers as the huge woman crashed forward in the dust, blood dribbling from her neck, before she had fired a shaft.
A few people in the bottom tier began to applaud, but the rest of the crowd waited. After a moment, Flocke smiled and clapped, and slowly, the rest of the audience joined in, building to a smattering of applause. Lysande caught a mention of the “red prince.”
“Well,” said Derset, faintly, “I think we have a winning time.”
Lysande was still staring at the dead mercenary. Behind the corpse, Luca turned to face the box and made a little, ironic bow, looking at her.
“Excuse me, my lady,” Derset added, “but I think Flocke wants something.”
The Keeper was hurrying up the stairs, all the way to the box. “Councillor! We would be honored if you would present the prize.” Flocke was wearing her oily smile as she blinked up at Lysande. “It was thanks to you that we had four such colorful bouts, after all.”
Lysande did not very much desire to descend into the ring, but Litany was beaming at her and Derset leaned over to pat her on the back. Looking at their faces, she drew a breath, and she rose and shook her head at the Axium Guards. Appearing before the people alone would look much better than appearing with a train of soldiers bristling with weapons; if she was to respect ordinary people, she could not appear before them like a woman warding off beasts. Perfault’s famous political tract, On Queens and Commoners, suggested as much.
Confidence before the nobility. Humility before the people. Books had a strange way of making themselves useful in your life, words sprouting up when you least expected them.
Halfway down the stairs, she felt the noise of the crowd roll over her in a thundering wave, but she remembered Derset’s remark. You can learn to stand before crowds. Even to like it. This was her own style; her own choice. She put another foot down on the stair below.
Flocke was waiting for her at the bottom, holding out a cloth sack. The gold inside felt like lead. In front of her, Luca had returned to the center of the ring and was looking at his bow, as if he did not hear the spectators shouting.
“You need only walk over and present this to Prince Fontaine,” Flocke said. “Make sure that you shake his right hand firmly.”
“Is it not the custom to shake with one’s weaker hand?”
“Prince Fontaine is left-handed, Councillor.”
Of course he was. The right hand would have been too ordinary for him. Foot after foot, she moved slowly over the sand, keeping her eyes fixed on Luca. It helped to focus on one figure instead of the hundreds of shouting and pointing people in the tiers. The body of the horned mercenary had been removed from the ring, but a lake of red dyed the sand where she had lain, and Luca stood behind it, his bow dangling from one hand.
She came to a stop opposite him. In the corner of her eye, a purple scarf fluttered as a woman leaned over a rail to cheer. It reminded her of queensflower petals.
“Congratulations, Your Highness,” she said, holding out the bag of gold. “You must be very proud.”
“Eminently so.” As he reached out to take the sack, his hand gripped hers. “Remember what I said to you, Prior. If you put the White Queen’s agent on the throne, we may all die. Do not mistake this for a game of tactos.” His voice had dropped to a whisper. “If you lose this game, you do not get to play again.”
He stepped back and pulled the sack with him, holding up his prize. The crowd broke into applause. Luca started to walk the champion’s circuit of the sand, following the circle of the stands. Lysande left him to it. This was his moment, after all, and he deserved his victory, even if he had won it in a demonstrably Rhimese way. She was halfway across the sand when she heard the growl.
It came from in front of her: a low and ominous sound, like a rumble before a storm. The creature burst from the door of the wolf cage and bounded into the ring, a mass of dark fur and sharp yellow teeth.
It was speeding over the sand now, taking in several feet at a bound. The forest wolves Sarelin had killed had never run like this. How in Cognita’s name did it get unchained?
She wondered how her mind had time to pick at details at a moment like this; yet skills could not be wished away. She could not halt the workings of deduction. Not even if mortality was bearing down upon her.
The wolf’s slavering mouth opened as it pounded toward her. It was seconds away. It was going to rip her to shreds in front of half of Axium.
This is the end, she thought. Maybe she would see Sarelin again.
Lysande could not say for sure that nothing awaited her, even if she had failed to worship in prayer-houses or stare at relics. For a second, she surrendered to hope.
At the last moment, the coil of her arm unsprung. She drew her dagger and advanced on the wolf. The animal shied and swerved around her, so close that she could see the drool on its jaw. A second too late, she realized where it was going.
“Fontaine!” she shouted. The animal barrelled at him, snarling. The prince of Rhime snatched up an arrow and fitted it to his bowstring. Rays of sun threw a sheen over his black armor as he pulled the arrow taut, lined up the point, and fired.
The wolf stopped, paws scrabbling, jaws snapping at the air.
It landed with a thump at Luca’s feet. The shaft of the arrow protruded from its neck. The Arena held its breath; all around the tiers, the crowd stared.
After a few seconds, Flocke laughed nervously and began to applaud. “Congratulations, Prince Fontaine,” she called, pointing to Luca. “Our champion triumphs again!”
Relief spread slowly around the audience, the crowd smiling and clapping along with Flocke. Some of them even cheered. Lysande took in the jubilant faces.
The prostrate body of the wolf lay on the sand, and over the top of it, she met Luca’s eyes. “We must leave,” he said.
The other city-rulers were already departing the box, too far away for her to make out their reactions. She cast a last glance at the wolf, its jaws still open in death. “Whoever loosed that wolf may unlock the cage again and set its furry companion free.” Luca came to her side. “We’re a prime meal, standing here.”
Slowly, she walked with him across the ring, away from the body of the animal and the patch of bloodied sand. Panther. Poison. Two strikes. Silent sword. Wolf. Another two.
Her eyes found the wolf cage, now surrounded by guards who were interrogating the young man in ragged clothes holding a bolt of emerald cloth, his eyes wide with fear. The boy had never received the chance to wave his bait. And why, in Cognita’s name, did Axiumites send one of the populace out to dangle a piece of fabric in front of wolves? Who had established this “custom”? Lysande rummaged in her mental notes, finding nothing. She noted how densely packed the tier behind the cage was. The door had been allowed to come unlocked, under so many eyes. The guards were all defending the box, she realized. It hurt, to realize that she was the one who should have anticipated this: a simple mistake, but one which had steered her to within an inch of disaster.
When they were nearly at the door in the stone, she turned and faced Luca, aware of hundreds of people watching them. “Are you all right, Fontaine?”
He studied her face for a moment.
“Quite all right, Prior,” he said. “But when my hosts set their dogs on me, I generally find it is time to leave.”
* * *
A ceiling of branches sheltered her in a cool, dark world. The fruit drooped around her, so ripe that it burdened the orange and lemon trees and bent the plum bushes to the ground, and scents of bell-flowers and sacharia buds perfumed the breeze. Lysande paced among the blossoms and leaves, turning at the end of the orchard.
An orange plopped at her feet. She stooped to pick it up, examining the swollen exterior, the dark color of the skin.
The guards and the spectators at the Arena had been questioned, but no answers had emerged. If the wolf had been set on herself and Luca, then maybe the silent sword had been meant for one of them, too. In all the swapping of plates, it might have ended up in front of Cassia by accident. But if that was so, Luca might not be the traitor.
He had scattered words like Rhimese rubies at her feet, each one resplendent with facets of knowledge, glimmering all the more when they rolled from shadow into light. He had sought to purchase her trust with rumors, disbursing them while they sat together: here, a clump of the White Queen’s powers; there, a clump of Sarelin’s veiled past. A more prosaic speaker would have sought to fill in every detail, but Luca had left gaps. There, she thought, lay the danger. You could pick apart a lie, but your imagination would brick up spaces.
Who was she to put on the throne? One of the three city-rulers who might have killed Sarelin and might now be trying to murder Luca Fontaine—or Luca himself: cobra-keeping linguist, bastard prince, fratricide? It was the kind of choice that Fortituda, goddess of valor, gave to seekers in the ancient stories, but she had never asked for a choice, and she was on no quest.
Scholars did not get invited on them. Only if you wielded a sword could you be declared a heroine, if the Silver Songs were to be believed.
As she paced back and forth, Luca’s words echoed in her mind. If you have any doubt about your choice, better to choose no one at all.
Excerpted from The Councillor, copyright © 2021 by E. J. Beaton.