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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Excerpt: The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor
by E. J. Beaton
March 2, 2021
Publisher: DAW
Genre: dark fantasy, swords and sorcery
448 pages
This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar's quest to choose the next ruler of her nation amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination

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.
Editorial Reviews
Praise for The Councillor

“A sharp and insightful look at power and privilege in a m agical world, and what happens when people who’ve historically had neither find themselves in possession of both.”—Anna Stephens, author of the Godblind trilogy
“A gripping tale of intrigue and politics and power, set in a beautifully-drawn world of shifting alliances and morally grey characters. Intelligent, nuanced, and compelling.” —H. G. Parry, author of The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap

“A tense intrigue of unknown loyalties, political machinations, and secret magic, The Councillor explores ambition, addiction, and the consequences of power. A powerful and intelligent debut from a writer to watch.” —Sam Hawke, author of City of Lies

“The Councillor is elegant, intricate, and utterly engaging! A beautifully written and intelligent debut novel.” —Rowenna Miller, author of the Unraveled Kingdom series

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The shape of a crown stood out in the emerald wax of the seal, and Lysande glanced at it once before looking away, staring at anything but that envelope. She raised her vial and drank. Gold tinged the room, spreading from the corners, glossing the piles of manuscripts and slipping across the bedsheets; she felt it transmute her insides, moving from her chest to her abdomen. The clink of glass dripped luster, and through it all, she struggled against a surging wish to let the effects spread and spread.

"Signore Prior!"

Calm settled upon her. The vial felt newly cool, as if it truly had been purified; as if it had never contained a spoonful of chimera scale, nor any ingredients that might mix and, if swiftly consumed, permeate the bloodstream. She did not need to think about the composition of the drug. She certainly did not need to think about the envelope.

"If you please, Signore Prior, the queen would see you."

The ball of emotion in her chest had begun to soften. How easy it would be to let it dissolve, under the same force that had gilded her vision. The old chant repeated in her mind: restrain, constrain, subdue.

When the messenger shouted through the door again, she pushed against her ease and forced her fingers to trade the vial for an empty basin. Slowly, she withdrew a small piece of hardened resin from her desk drawer and watched the surface of the stone glitter in the candlelight. After staring at it for a long time, she drew a swift breath and placed the night-quartz on her tongue. The reaction worked through her, and she bent over and retched; her hands gripped the edges of the basin until everything was expurgated. In the middle of the blue liquid, her own eyes shone, and she glimpsed something that was almost desperation.

Words drifted through the door. As Lysande threw on a pair of trousers, she anchored herself to the messenger's phrase: the queen would see you.

Gathering her keys, she put on her best doublet, a thick garment in the royal green, with only a smattering of ink-spots. She took the envelope with the emerald seal from her desk and paused, staring at it for a long time, turning it over in her fingers before slipping it into her pocket.

The physicians were leaving the royal suite as she arrived, carrying baskets of tools; only Surrick lingered in the corridor, wiping her hands on her robe. She nodded to Lysande, who nodded back slowly.

Lysande turned away from the chief physician and approached the suite. Her stomach swirled, but she kept her back straight and her hands from trembling.

Through the antechamber, trying not to look at the points of the swords in the brackets, she kept up a stiff gait. In the bedchamber, she threw up a hand to shield her eyes. Sunlight embossed the shelves on the wall. She watched an aureole form around a silver chalice, illuminating the words Sarelin Brey-Unifier, Warrior, Conqueror-the Hand that Held Back the White Tide and Saved Elira. Lysande shook her head and, after a moment, ran her finger over the edge of the envelope in her pocket.

"Sarelin?" Her voice resounded in the chamber.

She walked to the bed. The robe on the sheets drew her gaze, mottled with blood.

"Sarelin? Are you awake?"

"I hope so," a woman's voice said. "If this is the next life, it's lacking a bottle of red."

She felt the weight of Sarelin's presence, even before a figure emerged from behind the dressing-screen. Lysande was certain that the queen had not only chosen this position to show off the daggers at her left hip, nor the sword at her right, for at this angle, sunbeams struck the dent in her armor, turning it into a gleaming scar.

"Thank Cognita!" Lysande said.

"You can thank those damned physicians." Sarelin strode over and clapped her on the shoulder until her teeth knocked. "If they don't stop hectoring me, I'll tip the ghastly potion down their throats."

"Armor after an injury, though? Is that your wisest idea?"

"Surrick says I'm healed enough for it."

"And did you perhaps order Surrick to tell you that?" Lysande said.

"You want to watch that you're not too clever before breakfast. You can't enjoy a tart if you're full of a retort." As Sarelin clanked over to her table and poured herself a goblet of vivantica, Lysande noted the absence of a flush in her cheeks. The queen was not the wan figure she had been a few days ago when two women in armor carried her into the palace, shouting about a panther attack, but she still looked drawn, Lysande thought: too drawn by far.

She tested the words she had planned in her head.

"Ugh." Sarelin eyed the rose-pink liquid, swirling it in the cup. "Here, Trichard, Trichard!" A ball of golden fur leaped up from one of the chairs into Sarelin's hand. "You did a good job finding this little fellow."

"Call it an investment in the realm." Lysande tried to conjure a smile, hoping it would not crack.

"He lives up to his namesake." Sarelin tickled the tiny monkey. "Father could never shut his mouth, either."

The monkey chattered, as if on cue. It took a sip of the medicine and smacked its lips, and the two women laughed as one, Lysande's smile softening.

"Surrick's been bleating at me since I woke, telling me to use your little taster every time I drink. Claims your monkey can sniff out poison in seconds." Sarelin gave the animal another stroke. "Maybe she's got a point. With the whole realm thinking I'm about to collapse, there's some who'd like me to collapse faster."

Some moments arrived like a break in a song: pauses between beats that were not prearranged but opened up of their own accord, when the musicians drew breath. Lysande was looking at Sarelin, and then, in the space between words, she was aware of everything that she had agonized over since the hunt returned: all the possibilities, suspicions, and doubts, culminating in last night's reading. Sentences needled her mind.

She should at least say something. A hint about the panther. The animal was not the problem, but as for the associations that her research had thrown up . . . there was a certain name that you did not say, if you were wise, and Lysande was already bargaining with herself. When Sarelin was well enough to bark a greeting at the guards; when Sarelin was slamming the door of her suite and making the swords trembling in their brackets; when the queen's cheeks were flushed, then, she would bring up the possibility that the panther's attack had not been a coincidence.

Sarelin downed the goblet of vivantica in one go, shuddering, and reached underneath one of the platters. "I know it's late, but take this as the second half as your gift-day present."

"Sarelin, you cannot-"

"How dare you tell a queen what she cannot do?" Sarelin thrust a box under Lysande's nose, her face half-split with a smile.

Lysande opened the lid. The feather dazzled her eyes. Every barb was star-bright; the stem shone, painted gold and whittled to a point. She lifted the quill out of the box.

The first half of the present had been a gold dagger, presented a week ago, on the day that marked twenty-two years since she was found. She had never understood how the silverbloods expected her to celebrate that day, as if her childhood were a play with a magnificent ending. The problem with nobles was that they could not imagine a genre aside from heroic drama. What kind of story was it if your parents had abandoned you in a carpenter's shop during the war, a naked child in a room of blazing wood-tragicomedy? Or farce?

But the dagger. That was worth celebrating. Sarelin's present had carved straw enemies in the target range. Lysande turned her gaze to the quill now. Squinting, she made out her own face in the surface of the feather. The frown and the straggling mane of hair glimmered in reflection; she really should have combed her hair this morning, but at least the glinting, deathstruck lock was hidden beneath the other strands.

"You're spoiling me," she said.

"It's an exchange. You're going to copy out the news of my recovery."

"Ah. Of course I am."

"Anyway . . . there's no better scholar. Haven't I said it enough times? You're the girl who translated the Silver Songs, Lys. The girl with the quill."

Those were the same words Sarelin had spoken the day she had visited the schoolroom of the orphanage, the day that she had questioned each child about the history of Elira. I'll take the girl with the quill, she had said. Lysande swallowed. She placed the quill back in its hollow. In the pit of her stomach, unsaid things circled around and around and kicked, and every warning she had rehearsed in the last two days strained to get out.

"And you're taking care of the envelope for me," Sarelin said slowly, holding Lysande's gaze. "That deserves a reward."

It would not help, to run her hand over the envelope again. It would not aid her one jot to take it out and gaze at it-if overthinking could have made her feel confident, she would already be a worriless scholar. Lysande hugged Sarelin, her fingers interlacing behind the silver breastplate. There were too many chalices and plates on the wall, she thought; too many gleaming things from which her own countenance could gaze back.

She left the target range in the quiet before dusk. Once the door to her chamber was shut, she removed the jar from her drawer, unscrewed the lid, and dipped the spoon in, taking care not to let her hand tremble as she tipped a spoonful of shredded scale into the vial. Blue. Still the same stock, the same hue shining; maybe in a year or so, the smugglers would source their product from different chimera remains. Then she would be spooning out purple scale, or green. The properties of a long-dead beast were likely to transmogrify . . . with each different stock, new risks blossomed . . . Chariceƕs warnings repeated themselves to her, but she could smell the scale wafting up in dozens of different notes.

Spiced wine, grass after heavy rain, and the scent of old books when the covers had begun to wear; sometimes, like today, the chimera scale smelled of the things she enjoyed. At other times, she caught the scent of things she had tried to forget, like the rotten wood of the floorboards at the orphanage, and pipe-smoke: a thick tang from a particular herb which she had breathed all too recently.

Lysande held the vial over the fireplace until the heat nipped at her fingers. She poured the shredded scale into the goblet, tipped in a spoon of sugar from a jar on her desk, then added two spoons of water from another goblet.

The mixture began to fizz. It shivered and melted, leaving behind a liquid the color of lake water in the early morning, and Lysande drank until the goblet was half-empty. Her heartbeat began to hammer with the force of an angry blacksmith, but she ignored it; if she had pressed a hand to her forehead, she knew that she would have felt a fiery swathe of skin. Her stomach writhed. She told herself to push through the symptoms, one by one; to hold on to the thought of the reward. The calm spread through her next: it might not be pleasure that coursed through her veins, exactly, but she could see everything without frustration. The world around her, from the papers on her desk to the light streaming through the window and the wood of the bedposts-it all felt golden. The worries within her melted away and a purity imposed itself onto the room.

Had she really been thinking about the panther all afternoon? Had she truly been considering telling Sarelin what she had discovered, weighing it against the risk of the queen storming through the palace, forgoing medicine and rest? Had she really been imagining the way that rage dug trenches on Sarelin's brow-the way that Sarelin's voice smoked with fury when she swore revenge on one particular woman?

She tilted the goblet. Another drop of the concoction landed on her tongue. The hammer-blows of her heartbeat began to land faster and faster.

How familiar the practice of avoidance could be, and how sweet. There would be no need for night-quartz this time. She took the new quill from its box and traced a few shapes in the air, snaking the tip around.

Her hand flew over the pages of her notes, tracing tables of siege campaigns and checking officers' names sprinkled in brown ink. It was easy to forget about her distress when she was unearthing details, picking out the fine points from the stories and records that immersed her in another time. The tasks had changed, slowly. In her early years in the palace, she had compiled and translated as much of the realm's political history as she could, leafing through fat manuscripts in the queen's private library that had promised tales of assassinations, old stories of chimera attacks, and newer, mud-spattered accounts of rebellions. She had summarized trade deals, cross-referencing them with foreign alliances, noting whether they were achieved with arms or ink. Only when she had felt confident enough in her knowledge of history had she begun to search for patterns, analyzing the strategies that Elira's queens and kings had used against invaders, and classifying the tactics that city-rulers had employed to defend or expand their territory. It had taken many false starts with a quill before she had written the first words of her own treatise, the title pricked out boldly in rare violet ink: An Ideal Queen.

Today, she could not write for long. No matter what approach she tried to take, the prose came out in ungainly lumps. Sarelin's confident smile appeared in her mind, undercutting every sentence.

She opened her map-book, turning to the pages at the back. After surveying the diagrams of the White War for a moment, she touched the golden quill to the paper.

The final battle came out quickly; the Mud Field bloomed with legions and captains on her page, the Pyrrhan clash appearing on the White Army's left flank and the archers on the right. She covered the field with thin lines, marking the movements of the battalions.

There remained one thing to add, after the White Queen's advance: Sarelin's last charge. Her quill hovered above the page. Somehow, she could not touch it to the map.--This text refers to the hardcover edition.

About the Author


E. J. Beaton is the author of the fantasy novel The Councillor. She has previously published a poetry collection, Unbroken Circle (Melbourne Poets Union), and has been shortlisted for the ACU Prize for Poetry and the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize. She studied literature and writing at university, and her PhD thesis included analysis of Machiavellian politics in Shakespearean drama and fantasy literature. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.--This text refers to the audioCD edition.

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