After barely surviving his discovery of the source of the Nile, explorer Sir Richard Burton returns home to fame, glory, and a knighthood from his highness King George V. But he also receives another title―King’s Agent…for Burton may be the only man who can save England from doom.
Once he is brought into the king’s service, Sir Richard is trusted with a shocking truth: ever since the assassination of Queen Victoria, those in power have been guided and advised by a spirit―Abdu El Yezdi―whose wisdom has brought about incredible progress and prosperity.
Unfortunately, the voice of El Yezdi has fallen silent just as a controversial alliance is about to be formed with the Central German Confederation. More suspicious still are the disappearances of a number of England’s most brilliant thinkers and builders, with no clue as to who is responsible.
Now, aided by his own circle of unlikely and unconventional allies—including the devilishly lewd poet Algernon Swinburne—Sir Richard must delve into the darkest reaches of both the mystical and machine worlds if England is to survive a coming storm unlike anything ever imagined…
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SECRET OF ABDU EL YEZDI
A BURTON AND SWINBURNE ADVENTURE
By MARK HODDER
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013 Mark Hodder
All rights reserved.
"When one creates phantoms for oneself, one puts vampires into the world, and one must nourish these children of a voluntary nightmare with one's blood, one's life, one's intelligence, and one's reason, without ever satisfying them."
—Eliphas Levi, Axiom Xi of La Clef des Grands Mystères
Captain Richard Francis Burton leaned on the basin, looked into the mirror, and saw Captain Richard Francis Burton glowering back. He scowled into the black, smouldering eyes and snarled, "I'm sick of your meddling! I'll live by my own choices, not by yours, confound you!"
His tormentor's glare locked aggressively with his own.
At the periphery of Burton's vision, behind the devil that faced him, the cabin door opened and a slim young man stepped in. He was prematurely bald but sported a very long and bushy beard.
"You're awake!" the newcomer exclaimed, leaning his silver-topped walking cane against the wall.
Burton turned, but when he stopped the room didn't—it continued to spin—and the other jumped forward and took him by the elbows. "Steady on, old chap."
There was something rather repellent about the man's touch, but Burton was too weak to shake him off, so submitted meekly as he was guided to his bunk.
The visitor shook his head disapprovingly. "I don't know what you think you're doing. Sister Raghavendra will have your guts for garters. Back into bed with you, sir. You need rest and plenty of it. You're not out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot."
Burton managed to shrug free from the other's grip and slurred, "Did you see him? Why won't he leave me be?"
"To whom do you refer?"
"Him!" Burton shouted, flinging a hand toward the mirror and almost overbalancing. "Dogging my every step, the old fool! Interfering! Always interfering!"
The younger man chuckled—a sound that inexplicably sent cold prickles up Burton's spine. "It's merely your reflection, and you're hardly old; just worn out, that's all. The fevers have taken their toll, but I'm sure you'll regain your looks once you've shaken off the malaria. Now come, lie down, I'll read to you awhile."
Burton shook his head, his knees buckled, and he sat heavily. "Reflection, be damned. If I ever meet the dog, I'll kick him all the way to Hades!"
The visitor gave a snort of amusement, and the odious nature of his presence finally registered in full. Burton looked up at him, his jumbled senses converging, bringing the man's penetrating blue eyes into focus, noting the wide and rather cruel-looking mouth and the polished, overdeveloped cranium.
Dangerous. The fellow is dangerous.
A tremor ignited in Burton's stomach and raced outward through his body, causing his question—"Who are you, anyway?"—to come out more as a teeth-rattling moan.
"Four times I've visited your room, Captain," the man replied, "and four times you've made that very same enquiry. The answer is as ever. I am Laurence Oliphant, Lord Elgin's private secretary. He and I joined the ship at Aden for passage to London."
Burton frowned and struggled to clarify his thoughts. Memories eluded him. "Aden? We're not at Zanzibar?"
"No, we're not. The Orpheus departed Zanzibar two weeks ago. It spent five days at Aden, has just departed Cairo, and is currently en route to London via Vienna, where it will pick up the foreign secretary, Lord Stanley."
"What day is it?"
"Night, actually. Wednesday, the thirty-first of August. Tomorrow, your long expedition will finally be over. You'll be glad to get home, I expect. I understand you have a fiancée waiting for you."
Burton lifted his legs onto the bed, waited for Oliphant to arrange the pillows behind him, and lay back. His limbs jerked and his hands began to shake uncontrollably. He felt himself burning, sinking, disconnecting.
He could sense the eyes of the Other Burton upon him.
Go away. Go away. Leave me alone. I haven't time for you now. I have to watch this fellow. There's something about him. Something wrong.
Oliphant went to the basin, wetted a flannel, returned, placed it on Burton's forehead, and sat beside him. "You've been out of commission for nearly a month, but Sister Raghavendra says you're through the worst of it. She thinks the fever will break within the next few hours." He tapped his finger on Burton's shoulder. "Why do you do it, Captain? Why push yourself so hard? First in India, then your mission to Mecca, and now Africa—what drives you to such endeavours?"
Burton whispered, "The devil. He's inflicted upon me a mania for exploration."
"Ha! Well, this time Old Nick took you to the brink of death. You were lucky you had one of the Sisterhood of Noble Benevolence with you."
Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra. Her beautiful face blurred into Burton's memory then swam away.
"It wasn't luck," he murmured. "Is she aboard? I want to see her."
"She was here but half an hour ago. I'll call her back if you wish it."
Fragments. Broken recollections. Cascading water falling from the great lake—almost an inland sea—to begin its long journey to the Mediterranean. Standing on a hill overlooking it, his companion at his side.
Burton sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, feeling his eyes widen.
"John! My God! How is John?"
Oliphant looked puzzled. "John?"
"I'm afraid I don't know him. Half a mo! Do you mean the chap who was with you at Berbera back in 'fifty-five? The one who died?"
"I was in the Far East at the time, but if I remember the reports rightly, he took a spear meant for Lieutenant Stroyan. It pierced his heart and killed him outright. That was four years ago."
"Four years?" Burton whispered. "But Speke and I discovered the source of the Nile."
"The fever has you befuddled. As I say, Speke copped it during your initial foray into Africa. It was you, William Stroyan, George Herne, and Sister Raghavendra who solved the puzzle of the Nile. You'll be remembered among the greatest of explorers. You've made history, sir."
The information fell between Burton and the Other Burton and they fought over it. The Burton here, now—the real Burton, blast it!—knew the fact to be true. Lieutenant John Hanning Speke had been killed in 1855. The Other Burton disagreed.
That is not when he died.
It is. I was there. I saw it happen.
He died later.
No! He died defending Stroyan.
He sacrificed himself for you.
Get away from me! Leave me alone!
You need me, you dolt.
The argument melted into Burton's overheated blood and raged through his body. He felt his limbs thrashing and heard a wail forced out of him. "I've made history, you say? I've made history?" He started to laugh and couldn't stop. He didn't know why it was funny, but it was.
Funny and agonising and terrifying.
I've made history.
Dimly, he felt Oliphant rise from the bed and—through tear-blurred eyes—watched him cross to the speaking tube beside the bureau. The young man pulled the device free, blew into it, and put it to his ear. After a brief wait, he placed the tube back against his mouth. "This is Oliphant. Can you have Sister Raghavendra sent to Captain Burton's cabin? I think he's having a seizure." He clipped the tube back into its bracket, turned to face Burton, then raised his right hand and made an odd and complex gesture, as if writing a sigil in the air.
"You say you have a mania for exploration, Captain Burton, but to me, you appear to possess all the qualities of a fugitive."
Burton tried to respond but his vocalisation emerged as an incomprehensible bark. Flecks of foam sprayed from his mouth. His muscles spasmed.
"Perhaps," Oliphant continued, "you should consider the possibility that, when a man struggles to escape his fate, he is more likely to flee along the path that leads directly to it."
Burton's teeth chattered. The cabin skewed sideways, righted itself, and suddenly he could smell jasmine and Sister Raghavendra was there—tall and slim, with big brown eyes, lustrous black hair, and dusky skin burned almost black by the African sun. Eschewing—while she still could—the corsets, heavy dresses, and multiple petticoats of the civilised woman, she was wearing a simple, loose-fitting Indian smock.
She said, "Has he been at all lucid?"
Burton closed his eyes.
She's here. You're safe. You can sleep.
Oliphant's voice: "Barely. He was in the midst of one of his delusions. It's just as you told me. He appears to believe himself a divided identity—two persons, thwarting and opposing each other. Will he be all right?"
"Yes, Mr. Oliphant, he'll be fine. It's a normal reaction to the medicine I gave him. The stuff brings the malarial fever to a final crisis and burns it off with great rapidity. This will be his last attack. In an hour or two, he'll fall into a deep sleep. By the time we arrive in London, he'll be weak but fully recovered. Would you leave us, please? I'll sit with him for an hour or so."
The creak of the cabin door opening.
The bunk shifting as Sadhvi sat on the edge of it.
Her hand removing the flannel from his forehead.
Oliphant whispering, "As the crow flies, Captain Burton. As the crow flies."
* * *
Burton opened his eyes. He was alone. Thirst scratched at his throat but something else had yanked him from his sleep. He lay still and listened. The Orpheus thrummed beneath him, the noise of the airship's eight engines so familiar he now equated their background rumble with silence.
There was nothing else.
He pushed the sheet back, struggled out of bed—Bismillah! So weak!—and tottered over to the basin where he gulped water from a jug.
The mirror had been waiting. Hesitantly, he scrutinised the fever-ravaged countenance he saw in it: the sun-scorched but yellow-tinged skin, still marked with insect bites; the broad brow, beaded with sweat; the angular cheeks, the left furrowed by a long, deep scar; and the wildly overgrown forked beard that ill-concealed a forward-thrusting, aggressive jaw. He peered into the intense eyes.
My own. Just my own reflected.
He sighed, poured water into the basin, splashed it over his face, then closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Employing a Sufi technique, he withdrew awareness from his trembling legs, from the ague that gnawed at his bones, from every sense but the auditory.
A few minutes passed before it impinged upon his consciousness again, but—yes, there it was, extremely faint, a distant voice, chanting.
Chanting? Aboard the Orpheus?
He gave the mirror a second glance, muttered an imprecation, then crossed to a Saratoga trunk, opened its lid, lifted out the top tray, and retrieved a small bottle from one of the inner compartments.
The label read: Saltzmann's Tincture.
Five years ago, when an inexplicable impulse had led him to first purchase the cure-all from a pharmacist named Mr. Shudders, his good friend and personal physician, John Steinhaueser, had warned him off the stuff. Its ingredients were a mystery, but the doctor was certain cocaine was principal among them. Burton wasn't so sure. He knew well the effects of cocaine. Saltzmann's offered something entirely different. It imparted the exhilarating sense that one's life was ripe with endless options, as if all the possible consequences of actions taken were unveiled.
"Richard," Steinhaueser had said, "it's as insidious as opium and almost as addictive. You don't know what it might be costing you. What if it permanently damages your senses? Avoid. Avoid at all cost."
But Saltzmann's Tincture had cured Burton of the various ailments he'd brought back from India, saved him from blindness during his pilgrimage to Mecca, kept malaria at bay throughout his ill-fated penetration of Berbera, and had—despite Sister Raghavendra's seconding of Steinhaueser's opinion—sustained him while he led the search for the source of the Nile. For sure, in the final days of the expedition, he'd succumbed to the fever that was currently burning through his veins, but it wasn't half as bad as those experienced by the members of the Royal Geographical Society who scorned Saltzmann's and relied, instead, upon quinine. Livingstone, for example, was very vocal in his opposition to it and suffered as a consequence. In his most recent dispatch, sent from a village near the headwaters of the Congo and received at Zanzibar four years ago, Livingstone had reported himself "terribly knocked up" and predicted that he'd never see civilisation again. If only I had my faith to sustain me, he'd written, but the terrible things I have witnessed in these wicked lands have stripped it from me. I am no better than a beast. He hadn't been heard from since, and was now presumed dead.
Saltzmann's. If Livingstone had taken Saltzmann's, he'd have maintained his health and seen a way out of whatever predicament he was in.
Burton broke the bottle's seal, popped out the cork, hesitated a moment, then drank half of the clear, syrupy contents. Moments later, a delicious warmth chased the ache from his joints.
He turned and lurched across the room to the door, lifted his jubbah—the loose robe he'd worn during his pilgrimage—down from a hook, wrapped it around himself, then pushed his feet into Arabian slippers.
A walking cane caught his eye. It was leaning against the wall. Its silver grip had been fashioned into the shape of a panther's head. He picked it up and realised it concealed a blade, which he drew and examined: an extremely well-balanced rapier.
Sheathing the weapon and using it for support, the explorer opened the door and stepped out into the passageway beyond, finding it warmly illuminated by bracket-mounted oil lamps. His cabin was on the lower of the Orpheus's two decks, in the middle of the mostly unoccupied rear passenger section. William Stroyan's was a little farther along, closer to the stern observation room. He hobbled toward it. The corridor wavered around him like a mirage, and for a moment, he thought himself trekking across African savannah. He shook off the delusion and whispered, "Fool. You can barely stay upright. Why can't you just leave it be?"
He came to Stroyan's cabin and found its door standing partially open.
He rapped his knuckles against it.
"I say! Stroyan?"
He pushed the door open and entered. The lieutenant's bed was unmade, the room empty and lit only by starlight glimmering through the porthole.
Burton noticed his friend's pocket watch on the bedside table. He picked it up and angled its face to the light from the passage. Eight minutes to midnight.
Perhaps Stroyan was having trouble sleeping and had left this quiet area of the vessel to join the crew on the upper deck.
No. The bedsheets. The lieutenant is as neat as they come. Army training. He'd never leave his bedding twisted and trailing off the bunk like that.
Burton grunted, took a box of lucifers from the table, lit one, and applied the spitting, sulphurous flame to a lamp, which he then lowered over the thing he'd noticed on the floor.
A pillow, darkly stained.
He straightened, looked around again, saw the speaking tube, crossed to it, whistled into the mouthpiece, then put it to his ear and waited for a response.
A tinny voice said, "Yes, Lieutenant? What can I do for you?"
It was Doctor Quaint, the ship's steward and surgeon.
"It's not Stroyan, Doctor. It's Burton."
"Good Lord! I thought you were incapacitated."
"Not quite. Do you know where Stroyan is?"
"I haven't seen him since dinner, sir."
"I think someone struck him on the head and dragged him from his bed. Would you have the captain come down here, please?"
"Struck? Bed? Are you—?"
"I'm not delirious, I can assure you. Will you—"
"The captain. I'll tell him at once, sir."
As he returned the speaking tube to its housing, the muted chanting touched his senses again. He cocked his head and listened. It was louder now, a single voice, generally low and rhythmic but occasionally increasing in volume, as if impassioned and unable to fully contain itself.
Curiosity got the better of him, turned him around, and drew him back out into the passage. His balance was off and he stumbled along as if drunk, but pushed himself onward, spurred by a growing impatience with his own weakness and an almost vicious determination to conquer it and discover the origin of the mysterious sounds.
Excerpted from SECRET OF ABDU EL YEZDI by MARK HODDER. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Hodder. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
By the time the reader gets to this third book in a series of four, it is quite clear that Mark Hodder's interest is not in the alternate history of Steampunk, but in alternate historys in general. In fairness to the author, he thought this material up and put it on a page and the publishers backed the effort financially. If you are a Steampunk purist, you will read this novel out of duty. You will read the fourth book and pray for release.
Once again, Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne embark on a great adventure in an alternate history, driven by famous historical figures vividly drawn, sometimes acting as heroes and other times as villains. In this book some of the real historical events have been restored. Perhaps the fifth book will get us back on our historical track.
Burton and Swinburne ride (or should I say fly) again. While not as enjoyable as the first 3 books The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is still a good read. The story has all of the favorite characters from the original trilogy, but they are slightly different personalities. A few new characters are added in this installment which make the story more interesting. The first third of the book is very confusing as the events and characters are familiar but not quite the same as the previous trilogy. The reader quickly learns that something is amiss. ---------SPOILER (only slight)------ This story takes place in an alternate universe from the original story, which explains the differences in events and personalities. ----------------------End Spoiler------------------- The characters and events in El Yezdi are equally as entertaining as the first series. The only reason I enjoyed the first books better is that they were more original. El Yezdi is a good read and stands on it's own. I would recommend it to those who enjoyed the original Burton and Swinburne trilogy. I genuinely hope that Mr. Hodder has more adventures in store for this incarnation of Burton and company. I will be sure to read them.