Authors: Beth Brower
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Beth Brower
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
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Published by Rhysdon Press
The Wanderer’s Mark : Book Three of Imirillia / Beth Brower. p. cm. 3. Fantasy. 2. Adventure and Adventurers —Fiction. I. Title.
Cover by Kevin Cantrell Studio
The Books of Imirillia
To Allysha, who was not only a patron saint of my young reading, but who has been devoted and mighty in her role as godmother to my literary children.
Your faith in them gives me courage.
To Kip, who has journeyed, who has set his compass for true north. Who has stood beside me in all kinds of weather, hand in mine, and kept bright my dreams.
I look at you and marvel that I was the girl to be with such a fine soul. My heart is yours.
Table of Contents
In loss the Illuminating God declares a journey. His mortals release their loves, just as the desert is stripped of its beauty, and they, His children, are hollowed and hallowed. For loss is His sanctifier.
—The First Scroll
Eleanor hit the earth with a jolt and fell against the wall, her cheek striking the stone. The square of light which led to Basaal and his life disappeared as Basaal put the stone back into place. Eleanor was left in complete darkness. She reached out and touched the stone wall. It was slippery, and damp.
Basaal had told her to follow the wall with her left hand. What if she had been turned around in the fall and went the opposite direction? Her instincts told her to go left, so she placed her hand on the wall and began to move, pushing away any thoughts of what could be occupying the darkness. Several minutes passed, then Eleanor came around a corner, where she could see a soft glow in the distance.
Eleanor moved down the tunnel. When she reached the corner, she looked around it carefully. Dantib was there, hunched against the stone, waiting.
“Eleanor?” he said as he saw her. Her name sounded strange in his heavy accent.
“Yes,” she said as she stepped out before the stable master.
The old man stood, slightly hunched, and motioned to her. “I will tell you more once we have left the city. For now you must follow, quick and close.”
Basaal was at war, but it was a war with himself as much as it was a war with his father. The covenants of his Safeeraah were wrapped around him like the strong roots of a tree; while they held him up, they also tied him in place. Basaal now felt that they called for opposing actions.
How could he treat with Aemogen in honor—the honor the Illuminating God required of him—tied as he was by covenant to his father, when he could not condone his father’s current course? And was loyalty to the empire the same as loyalty to its emperor, even as the emperor crossed every line given by the Illuminating God?
Shaamil had separated himself from the religion—he did not practice any form of prayer, he neglected any devotion save public display, and he had exiled the prophets from Zarbadast when Basaal was a boy—enough so that Basaal was still surprised his father had honored Eleanor’s claim to marry Basaal. The emperor thought he could manipulate Basaal more effectively with her alive, no doubt.
“Are you ready to be purified?”
Basaal jerked his head up. “Come again?” he asked.
Ammar had just come from his apartments, meeting Basaal in the general corridor of the main palace. There were several servants passing around them, bowing wordlessly, giving space to the two princes.
“Are you ready for one more tedious ceremony?” Ammar asked.
“I’ve never minded ritual,” Basaal answered, still distracted.
“No, you haven’t.” Ammar fell into step beside him. “What is Eleanor doing while you’re away?” he asked. “Raiding the archivist’s hall?”
“Eleanor?” Eleanor was beneath their feet now, making her way through the tunnels of Zarbadast. “She is unwell today, doubtless from all the festivities,” Basaal answered.
Ammar frowned. “What are her symptoms?”
“Ah—” Basaal ran his fingers through his hair. “A general tiredness is all.”
It was an extensive maze of tunnels that ran beneath the palace. And Eleanor wondered who else besides Basaal knew of them—or used them. Dantib must have memorized the route, for she could see the careful attention evident in his face each time he stopped, as if he were trying to remember the correct way through.
Though his movements were agile, he was a very old man. The torch that he held was small, but its light was bright on his gnarled, knotted hand, testifying to years over years of work.
She did not know how long they had been moving through the tunnel, but he finally stopped and motioned towards a dark square above them.
“It is unlocked,” he whispered. “All that you must do is press the wooden door up, and it will give. I will help lift you. Then you must drop the rope down for me. Be quiet as you can.”
He dropped the torch, smothering the embers with his foot. Eleanor blinked in the darkness, looking up. She was now able to make out lines of light around the trap door above her head. A sound from farther down the tunnel echoed towards them, and the muscles in Eleanor’s body gripped her bones.
“A rat,” Dantib whispered.
Her eyes were now adjusted to the dark, and Eleanor could see he had laced his hands together, motioning for Eleanor to place her foot between them. Doubting he could lift her, Eleanor did as he asked, pushing up and steadying herself against the tunnel’s ceiling.
The wooden door was close, and with a bit of effort, she pushed it open as Dantib held her steady. The rich smell of spices filled Eleanor’s lungs, and she grasped the edges of the stone floor above her, pulling herself up despite the tight strain in her shoulders. Catching her breath, she could feel the hard stones against her knees.
She reached forward in the dim light of what appeared to be a storeroom and found a small rope with a loop at one end. Lowering it into the tunnel below, she gripped it with all her strength as Dantib’s weight pulled the rope taut. Dantib reached up—first, with a single hand, then, two—hanging onto the edge. He seemed unable to bring himself up any farther. So Eleanor dropped the rope and grabbed the old man’s wrists, careful not to make any noise as she hoisted him up into the storeroom.
Once Dantib was free from the tunnel, he shut the trap door and locked it. Meanwhile, Eleanor looked around them. The room was filled with barrels and various crates, the aroma of spices thick in the air. It was kept cool, and little light trickled in.
Dantib motioned for Eleanor to help him as he rolled an old, faded rug over the door, then they shifted several barrels to cover it. When all was back in place, the entrance to the tunnel was completely concealed.
“Where are we?” she whispered, out of breath.
Dantib motioned for her to be quiet and led her up a stairway to the ground floor. They passed a small, barred window, and the stable master removed a pebble from his pocket. Standing on his toes, he lifted his hand up and dropped the pebble through the bars. The sound of soldiers could be heard in the corridor above and Dantib froze, waiting for the footsteps to pass. Once the hallway had quieted, Dantib nodded and led Eleanor down the hall, pausing at the corner, and looking around it carefully. Peering over Dantib’s shoulder, Eleanor could see the front doors of a building. They were open, but two guards stood on the street, talking to each other and watching the people. She could also hear more soldiers, moving in a room nearby.
Eleanor was petrified as she waited for Dantib to do something, but he just stood there watching the street then looking down the hallway behind them. Someone laughed, and Eleanor heard footsteps approaching. The muscles in Dantib’s face shifted, and his eyes returned to the front gate. Just then, a man riding a horse appeared outside on the street. It was the guard, Basaal’s guard, Zanntal.
Eleanor allowed herself a slight feeling of relief as Zanntal motioned to the soldiers at the door, calling them over to him. The men stepped a few feet into the street, and Zanntal kept them occupied with a description of supplies he needed for a royal feast. So Dantib and Eleanor flew around the corner just as another soldier came into view. They slipped silently out the entrance, behind the guards, into the busy, festival-filled street. Eleanor looked back once at Zanntal, but he paid them no attention. Pulling her headscarf down over her face, she let out an anxious breath and followed Dantib. They lost themselves in the city.
The ceremonial council—and its purification rite—was to be held in a large room in the main palace. In only a matter of moments, the brothers had all assembled, speaking amongst themselves until Shaamil entered the room.
Basaal watched as his father took his seat at the head of the long table. They had not truly spoken all week, and he was uncertain if the hint of goodwill exhibited after the wedding ceremony still held. The emperor’s face was unreadable, but his eyes were active, scanning the faces of his sons as they took their seats. Emir sat opposite the emperor, the remaining brothers—Ashim, Arsaalan, Ammar, Kiarash, and Basaal—flanking both sides.
When all were seated, Emir stood and began the ceremonial council.
“Who is it,” he began, “that has come to swear himself to the Illuminating God, the empire, and the emperor?”
“It is I,” the brothers responded simultaneously.
“And who is it,” Emir continued, “that comes on this day of purification to make himself clean before the same?”
“I,” Basaal said alone.
“Then, let us begin.”
The smells of the street were fair and foul: spices, refuse, crowds of people, vendors calling out their wares, bright colors, and laughter. Today was the largest festival of the year, and not only did all of Zarbadast turn out but, as Basaal had said, many people had also come in from the provinces to buy, sell, and celebrate.
Eleanor’s simple brown clothing did not call attention, for it was poor in comparison to what she saw around her. Dantib held her by the elbow, guiding her through the crowds, following a path that crossed the busiest streets.
“How much time do we have before they begin looking for us?” Eleanor asked in a side street that Dantib led her down.
“The prince said we would have, at the very least, one hour, at the very most, three,” he said. “Almost an hour has already passed.”
Eleanor pulled again at her headscarf. “What is our plan?”
“There are many travelers in and out of Zarbadast today,” Dantib explained. “We must leave through the east gate and reach the eastern rock lands before nightfall. Our horses are waiting a handful of days outside of Zarbadast. Are you prepared to travel all night?” He peered in her eyes for a moment.
“Yes,” Eleanor said, her heart beat up her throat as she looked around the jumbled marketplace they were passing through. “Just show me where to go.”
Dantib grabbed Eleanor’s hand, and they fled through the endless maze of stairs and streets, moving towards the East.
Basaal shot his head up like the flick of a whip’s end and looked into the eyes of Emir.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“The correct answer would be, ‘Yes, my Lord Emperor.’” Emir’s tone was impatient. Evidently, seven days of celebrations had worn on the first son, and he had little tolerance now for this final ritual.
“Yes,” Basaal said as he nodded towards his father, repeating the words with all the steadiness he could muster, “my Lord Emperor.” Shaamil paused, his eyes on Basaal, then turned his attention back to the words that Emir was speaking.
The ceremony continued, and Basaal shifted from the uncomfortable emotion in his chest, the hollow pounding in his ears threatening to undermine his warlike state of mind. But the fear gnawed at him that at any moment Eleanor would be reported missing. Basaal again tried to give himself over to the words of the ceremony. But it was another failed attempt. His thoughts could not leave Eleanor for a moment, and he felt strange, as if he had defeated himself and lost his center.
Honor for Imirillia, Honor for Imirillia, Honor for Imirillia
and blessing upon her emperor,
” the brothers repeated together. Basaal joined late in the chant. No one seemed to have noticed.
“Basaal,” Kiarash hissed.
Basaal blinked and looked up. They were all staring at him.
“It’s time to make your covenant to the empire,” Emir said.
“Yes, I was—I was thinking,” he explained. “I was preparing myself.”
Basaal stood in place, his hands clasped before him and his head bowed, and repeated the ceremonial phrases. He remembered all the words, but his mind was still with Eleanor, who should have slipped from the palace storehouse by now, into the streets of Zarbadast. As he spoke, he thought about how they would run down into the markets, weaving amongst those there to observe the day of purification. Then Dantib would lead Eleanor to the east gate and out onto the busy road, where merchants, travelers, pilgrims, and revelers would be pouring back and forth in a busy stream of celebration.