The Terrorists of Irustan imagines a world where a society which exercises absolute control over women has established a new home on a mining planet. Zahra IbSada, a medicant, is devoted to her patients and her apprentice. She sees a wife brutally beaten, a prostitute suffering at the hands of her employers. And her best friend Kalen, a mother who is struggling to save her daughter from a cruel betrothal. Kalen begs Zahra for help, and although it goes against her medicant vows, Zahra reluctantly agrees. But this silent act of terrorism will have far-reaching consequences—for herself, and for all the women of her planet.This novel was shortlisted for the Nebula, Campbell, and Tiptree Awards.
Louise Marley's The Terrorists of Irustan deals with a world where women's roles are severely limited — and details the struggle as they begin to fight back. Louise writes under a variety of names, including Cate Campbell, Louisa Morgan, and Toby Bishop, every time with an elegance and empathy that is showcased in this early book of heres. – Cat Rambo
"Marley's acclaimed, exquisite prose and her universal themes of feminist heroism light the book brightly."– Booklist
"Thoughtful and effective."– Kirkus
The two men in the center of the evening room turned to the child waiting near the door. One man held out his hand. The little girl, invisible under layers of pale pink silk, shrank back suddenly against her mother, and for a dreadful moment it seemed she would refuse to go to her father. A silence fell over all those watching, magnifying the hum of the cooler doing battle with the heat. The star blazed through the skyroof.
Abruptly, the mother thrust her daughter forward. It was a gesture of severance. It reminded Zahra of the way she might pull out a splinter or rip off a bandage, all at once, so it would be over quickly.
The child stumbled across the floor to her father, skirts trailing on the tiled floor. Muhid took her small hand and placed it in Qadir IbSada's large one. "This girl is yours now," Muhid intoned. "She is in your charge."
The little girl's veil trembled, shimmering in the harsh light. It was new, and very pretty. She had put it on for the first time that very day. The cap was slightly too large, and the rill came suddenly free and fluttered away from her eyes. Her mother sucked in her breath in dismay. Qadir dropped her hand.
The girl was small for her age, Zahra thought. She caught a flash of dark eyes, a smooth forehead, a wisp of brown hair, before the child threw up her hands and flattened the veil to her brow with both palms. She was trying not to shame herself and her family. She stood alone, struggling with the unfamiliar button. Her father stared down at her, his mouth half open.
Zahra clicked her tongue. This was ridiculous. She strode forward, flaunting propriety, and swiftly fastened the errant veil with her own long, strong fingers. She cast Qadir a look through her own veil, and saw his narrow lips twitch as he suppressed a smile.
Then, as if it were all part of the ritual, he took up the child's hand again and placed it in Zahra's.
Zahra saw that the child's mother now sagged into the hands of her women, tears soaking her veil. For the first time Zahra felt doubt. What had been done here? She hadn't considered the mother's sacrifice, her pain. Zahra held the child's trembling shoulders, and willed the mother to feel her sympathy.
* * *
Zahra had spent the first hour of this momentous day staring out her bedroom window, thinking about change. She watched the shuttle, broadwinged, sleek, its particle shields glimmering, soar over the city toward the port. Its landing pattern led it from the east, where the rhodium mines of Delta and Omikron Teams gashed the brown hills, to the west, where the gray towers of Offworld Port Force shadowed the landing field. Zahra strained her ears to hear the thrum of the great engines as the shuttle floated in, its rounded belly full of offworld materiel, supplies for Port Force, repair materials for the mines, medicines for her own clinic.
Tomorrow, with a shattering roar, the shuttle would drive itself free of Irustan, ferrying a small, priceless shipment of rhodium to the ExtraSolar Corporation transport waiting above the atmosphere. That was a ship Zahra would never see. She could only imagine it, a silver construct against the blackness of space, circling in silence above Irustan. She thought of it as restless, like herself, impatient to be off, to dash away among the stars the way the nightbirds flitted between the mock roses in her own garden.
"Medicant?" Zahra's anah, gray hair and plain face already veiled, looked in. "Do you want your breakfast up here?"
"Just coffee, Lili," Zahra said.
"I'll bring it up," Lili said. "No patients today?"
"No. Just the cession. Has the director had breakfast?"
"He's having it in the dayroom now. Do you want me to take a message?" "No, thanks. Just wondering."
Lili closed the door. Zahra shrugged out of her dressing gown and dropped it on the bed. She picked up her shift, laid ready for her by Lili, and went to stand before the mirror, contemplating her appearance. She was thirty-five years old. Qadir IbSada had been thirty-five when they married. He had seemed terribly old to her at the time, though her friends had all been ceded to men even older.
Her friends had grown plumper, their hips wider, bellies rounded, bodies altered by their pregnancies. Zahra's hips were lean, her breasts small, her body light and flexible. No pregnancies. Conception had been the one aspect of her life she could control.
Qadir still occasionally asked for her at night. She couldn't control that. Perhaps he still hoped for a child of his own. Today, in any case, a child was coming, a little girl of eight. She was to study with Zahra and learn from her. An apprentice, as Zahra herself had been apprenticed. A student, and a companion.
Zahra dropped her shift over her head. No medicant's coat today. That was plain and comfortable, made from the native fiber cloth, studded with pockets. Today she would wear a formal dress of gray silk, chosen by Lili for the ceremony. It was hanging pressed and ready beside her dressing table. The Ceremony of Cession, the ceding of a female from one man to another, was an important event, a tradition to be observed with formality. Qadir would accept the girl into his household, and then he would present her to Zahra as his gift. From this day forward, the child would be with her day and night. Zahra's life was about to change almost as dramatically as it had on the day of her own cession to Qadir.
She knew so little about children, really—she knew their ailments, she gave them their inoculations—but she knew nothing of their natures. When they came to the surgery, they were just small bodies to be made well with the medicator, and with her skill. If they cried, or squirmed about, she handed them back to their mothers. That would not be possible with this one.
With her dress in her hands, she went again to the window. The shuttle was on the ground now, obscured from her sight. The photovoltaic collectors in the roofs of the intervening buildings glittered in the glare of the star, dazzling her eyes. She glanced to the east, where the squat mining machines rolled between mounds of eviscerated rubble. A row of white cylinders punctuated the near horizon, blistering in the blue-white light. Every Irustani knew the narrow, roofless cells that awaited any who broke the law of the Second Prophet. They were stubby digits of stone, admonishing fingers pointing eternally up into the relentless light of the star.
Zahra dropped her gaze to the Akros, where the houses of the directors faced each other across a broad avenue lined by met-olive trees. Some of the trees were almost three hundred years old. In their shade, mock roses grew slowly into convoluted shrubs with floppy vermilion blooms that drooped in the heat.
Zahra turned away from the window at last and stepped into the dress. It was long, to cover her long legs, and its hem swirled softly against her ankles. The matching veil was made of three fabrics in descending weights, the lightest hardly more than gauze. Zahra wound the heavy length of her black hair into a coil and secured it with a clasp that had been a birthday gift from her husband. It was chased in platinum, the by-product of the rhodium mines. When she settled her cap and veil over her head she had to be careful not to snag the silk.
The layers of the veil were pale, shining like silver in the morning light. The drape fell in narrow unpressed pleats to her waist, framing her chin and enveloping her shoulders. The verge was lighter, just heavy enough to be opaque. For now Zahra left it open. After she had drunk her coffee, she would attach it to the tiny button at the left side of the cap, and it would hang smooth and straight, a blank panel covering her mouth and nose. The rill was the lightest layer of all. When it was fastened, she would be able to see just enough to walk, but her eyes would be almost invisible. Only in her clinic, properly escorted, could she leave the rill unbuttoned. In all other situations she must hide her features from any man not of her household. She had put on the veil, like all Irustani girls, at the age of eight, never to take it off again in any male presence but her husbands. Only prostitutes went unveiled.
Zahra slipped her feet into soft indoor sandals and sat down at the dressing table. Lili came in bearing a tray with a steaming carafe and two cups. That meant Qadir was coming up.
Lili set the tray down, saying, "You should hurry, Medicant. The director will be here in a moment." Lili almost never went unveiled, despite the fact that she belonged to Qadir, ceded by her family when he married Zahra. She had no need even for the verge in his presence. If he wanted her, after all, he could have her. Plain she might be, with her lumpy nose and receding chin, but she was part of his household, to do with as he saw fit. But Lili was proud of her upbringing, her genteel manners. She was certain of her role in life. She was anah to the wife of the chief director of Irustan. Only if the director asked her would she unveil in his presence.
Zahra tapped her foot under the dressing table. She would have preferred to drink her coffee in silence, in solitude. It was to be her last morning alone for years. She poured a cup and sipped, watching herself in the mirror.
She smoothed away her frown, making her narrow brows level. Her eyes were a deep, clear violet, faint lines just beginning to frame them. Her lips were wide and full, hinting at a sensuousness she had never felt. She looked away, sipping again, liking the deep, bitter taste on her tongue.
Qadir tapped lightly on her door before he came in. He crossed to her and bent to kiss her cheek. "Good morning, Zahra," he said. His fingers found the nape of her neck beneath her veil and caressed it. She found his hand unpleasantly warm. "A big day, isn't it?" he asked.
She met her husband's gaze in the mirror. He was a tall, thin man, narrow-chested and balding, with cool, intelligent gray eyes. He was attractive, even at fifty-two. At their cession, Zahra's friends, the circle of friends she had known since childhood, had stared at him with admiration and envy.
Ever so slightly, she drew away from his touch. "Good morning, Qadir," she said. "Yes. It's a big day."
Lili poured coffee for Qadir. He took the cup and leaned back in his chair, crossing his long legs at the ankles. He looked around at the room. Plain white curtains belled under the draft from the cooler, and a rather worn white-and-blue quilted spread covered the narrow bed. Zahra had collected no cushions, no rugs, nothing unnecessary. Her desk, of the native whitewood, held a neat stack of medical discs, a reader, the small panel that flashed and buzzed if there was a call from the clinic, and a solitary picture in a frame made of oak, real Earth oak. The frame was the most costly thing in the room. The picture was of Nura Issim, Zahra's late teacher, the outlines of her wrinkled face just visible through brown silk.
The room was quite bare otherwise except for a small cot with a new flowered quilt and a matching puffy pillow. Lili had placed a toy there, something soft and plush. It hadn't occurred to Zahra to buy a toy. She was glad Lili had thought of it.
Qadir nodded toward the cot. "The child will like that, I'm sure. But wouldn't you like something for yourself, Zahra? Maybe one of those little fountains they sell in the Medah? Something to mark the occasion—and liven your surroundings!"
Zahra said only, "Nothing, thank you, Qadir."
Qadir drained his coffee cup. He stood, smiling, and bent over her. "My Zahra," he murmured, touching her cheek with one brown finger. The hairs on the back of his hand were going gray. "It's all work with you, isn't it?"
She shrugged a little, and drew up the verge of her veil to button it. He set his cup down with a small clatter."A child is just what you need," he said. "You'll enjoy this girl."
"It's time for me to have an apprentice," she answered. "I'm looking forward to that."
Qadir chuckled. "Medicant IbSada," he said, "you know a lot about medicine, but very little about children. I think you'll be surprised—I expect we both will!" He leaned to kiss her again. He smelled spicy, clean, and soapy. She didn't answer his smile, but he couldn't see it. Her verge was already fastened. She watched his reflection as he left the room.
Lili came back for the tray just as Zahra was lifting the gauzy rill to its tiny button. "Are you ready, Medicant?" Lili asked. "It's time, I think."
"I'm ready," Zahra said. The silk of her verge brushed her lips as she spoke.
* * *