This December, the wonderful people at Night Shade Books are hosting a holiday countdown, encompassing a wide variety of articles by Night Shade authors, giveaways, and excerpts around the blogosphere. Today is the third day in the countdown, and we have been given the honor to host an exclusive excerpt from Infidel by Kameron Hurley, as well as a guest blog in which she tells us a touching personal story that provided her with inspiration for her books. You can read the guest blog here.
Infidel is the second novel in Hurley’s The Bel Dame Apocrypha, the sequel to God’s War. Enjoy the excerpt below or download it in PDF format. Don’t forget to check out Night Shade’s twitter account for daily updates from their holiday countdown.
Nyx had grown up in Mushirah, or grown up there as much as any free Nasheenian could grow up in any city outside the coastal compounds. Back then, five was considered a small but legal family size, and after Nyx and her siblings had gone through the requisite three years of inoculations and modifications at the compounds, they were released to their mother’s farm in Mushirah.
Mushirah proper was situated along both sides of the Bashinda River, but the Bashinda didn’t show up on a map. At the northern border of Mushirah the river terminated in a muddy mouth at the edge of the desert, three hundred miles from the sea. Mushiran farmers used up all of the Bashinda’s water before it could get out of the city.
Nyx hitched her way from Basra to the refueling station where local farmers collected bug juice for their farming equipment and personal vehicles. Eshe and Suha were headed for the safe house in Punjai. She’d meet them there in a couple days. It was safer for them if she made this particular meeting alone anyway.
Nyx alighted and started to put on her goggles as she looked out over Mushirah, then stopped. She wouldn’t need her goggles here.
After the rolling desolation of the dunes and the flat white sea of the desert the last few days, the green terraced hills around Mushirah were a jarring change of scenery. She began the long walk to the river.
These were the hills of her childhood, the terraced green and amber fields that she had run into the desert to forget. Mushirah was an isolated oasis full of fat, soft, happy people. But the sand was never more than a few hours’ walk away, and the trains and bakkies that ferried goods in and out of Mushirah were operated by skinny, hard-bitten desert people who knew how to use a knife for something other than carving up synthetic fuel bricks. Mushirah knew exactly what sort of world lay outside its grassy limits. And to Nyx, the world outside the grassy ring that offered all these soft people a sense of false security was the real world. Anything less than the desert was a dream.
It was the thirty-first, so Nyx had the afternoon to find herself a place, contact Eshe and Suha in Punjai, and get cleaned up before the morning meeting at the mosque. The mosque was an ancient domed relic at the center of the city, on the eastern bank of the river. Six spiraling minarets ringed the mosque. During the call to prayer, all six were staffed with muezzins, all the better to reach the ears of the farmers in the sprawling fields surrounding the city.
Nyx walked into the main square at the entrance to the grounds of the mosque and looked around for public hotels. She remembered that there was a convention complex just south of the mosque that would do fine. Long lines of children followed after their mothers, carrying baskets of starches and giant ladybug cages. The people on the street gave her looks ranging from surreptitious glances to outright stares. Most desert traders didn’t come down to the square during the off-season, and bel dames and bounty hunters generally stayed out of rural areas—Nyx hadn’t seen her first bel dame until she was sixteen.
If Nyx didn’t want to be noticed at the mosque she’d need to buy some new clothes and swap out her sandals for work boots. She probably shouldn’t be going around armed in Mushirah, either.
Not visibly, anyway.
She scouted out a hotel in the complex and walked over to the marketplace on the other side of the river and bought some new clothes. She found a public bathhouse and changed, then unbuckled her blade and scattergun and stowed them in her shopping bag. For a handful of change she got herself a bath and had a girl re-braid her hair in a style more suitable to Mushiran farm matrons. Her mother had worn her hair the same way.
When Nyx walked back onto the street she got fewer looks, but the boots hurt and she felt half-naked with her sword in a bag instead of at her back. When she found a hotel, the clerk did a double take when she walked in, but the notes Nyx handed her were mostly clean and certainly valid, and after that she got no trouble.
Nyx spent an uneasy night staring at the main square from the filtered window of her little room. The solitude was strange. She’d gotten used to Suha and Eshe’s banter.
There was a balcony, so after it got dark she moved there and leaned over the railing. Nyx was tired and hungry. She ordered up enough food to feed a couple of people, ate it all, then fell into a sleep that felt like water after a day in the desert. Her dreams were cloying things; dark and tangled, full of old blood and regret.
The call to prayer woke her at midnight, and after that she couldn’t get back to sleep. She went to the privy down the hall and vomited everything she’d eaten. After, she stayed curled around the hard stone basin of the privy with her cheek pressed against the rim while the roaches inside the bowl greedily devoured her vomit.
I can’t fuck up now, she thought, and she tried to hold that thought in her fist like a stone. Instead, thought and reason slipped through her fingers like sand: bloody red and fine as silt.
She realized, then, how close she was to dying out here alone, hugging the stone bowl of a privy in some anonymous hotel room in the town she grew up in.
The thought terrified her enough to keep her awake all night.
When dawn prayer sounded over Mushirah, Nyx waited outside the mosque in the blue light of the first dawn. Her right hand had a tremor now that she could not still, and she was having trouble keeping her eyes open. Her exhaustion was deep, like sleep was her natural state. Standing outside at dawn felt like breathing underwater.
So when a woman passed by her into the mosque and gently tugged at her burnous, Nyx actually made a half-hearted attempt to grab at the scattergun that was no longer stowed at her back.
“Hold,” the woman said, and turned to look at Nyx, her fingers still clutching Nyx’s burnous.
The woman wore a hood, and in the dim blue light, her face obscured, Nyx didn’t know her.
“It’s this way,” the woman said slowly, deliberately. “I advise you to follow.” Nyx remembered the voice then. Kasbah, the Queen’s security tech.
“Yeah,” Nyx said, and shambled in the direction Kasbah was moving.
But Kasbah stayed firm. “Are you all right? Are you drugged?”
“Of course not,” Nyx said.
“You aren’t well. If you weren’t well why did you answer the summons?”
“I’m fine,” Nyx said.
Kasbah released her elbow. Kasbah was a tall, bold-faced woman with good hands and lean shoulders. Nyx thought she would have made a good bel dame, if she hadn’t been born a magician.
“I want an identity verification,” Kasbah said. She held out a small red patch of paper.
“Been that long?” Nyx muttered. “I don’t have any infections. My magician just checked me out.”
Nyx pulled a wad of sen from her pocket, tucked it between her lip and teeth. She held out her other hand and pressed her fingers to Kasbah’s coded paper. If Nyx was clean, she’d live. If she was contaminated, she’d die.
She didn’t die.
Pity, she thought.
The second sun was beginning to come up over the horizon. Women streamed past them into the mosque. Kasbah had her head turned up now to peer at Nyx, and Nyx saw her frowning. Like the rest of them, Kasbah had gotten old. The braided hair that escaped from the bowl of the hood was pale. It was possible to dye one’s hair, of course, but in Nasheen graying hair was a sign of strength. Not many people lived long enough to go gray.
Nyx let the sen work itself into her system. It was beginning to ease the pain in her joints.
“I told you I’ll be all right. I’m just tired,” Nyx said.
Kasbah spent another long moment staring into her face, then nodded. “Come with me,” she said.
Nyx followed her into the throng of women heading into the mosque. Kasbah turned away from the group and took her through a low arched doorway. A woman dressed in the black robes of a mullah held the door open for them. When Nyx passed through, the mullah shut the door. Kasbah picked up a hand lantern set in a high niche in the wall. Nyx heard the chittering of scarab beetles. When she looked back, the door pulsed with their shiny, blue-black forms.
Ahead of her, Kasbah continued down the ill-lit stairway. Glow worms lined the stone, but most of them were dead or dying.
Nyx had heard about the catacombs under some of the earlier mosques, but she had never seen them. In a place so vulnerable to bugs and contagion, she couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind burying their dead instead of burning them—especially when you saw what happened to them when the heads weren’t chopped off— but it had been standard practice back at the beginning of the world.
They stepped into a low chamber; the air was cool and dry. The walls were dusty red, not stone or bug secretions, but something else, and they had names and dates engraved on them in prayer script, the same written language that Nasheen shared with Chenja and Tirhan. The neat rows of names reminded Nyx of the silver memorial slabs at the coast, and the Orrizo, of course. Nyx put out her hand. The wall felt smooth, like a slab of metal. She pulled her hand away and followed after Kasbah into the semi-darkness.
Kasbah led her through a maze of chambers and then up a short stair. When they came to another door guarded by scarab beetles, Kasbah waved her hand in front of the doorway. The beetles retreated into the lintel. She pushed the door open. They came up in a round cell whose walls were decorated in gilt calligraphy. A swarm of wasps had collected around a light fixture. The swarm pulsed and droned. Three women in dark burnouses sat playing cards at the center of the room on a line of prayer rugs. They looked up when Nyx and Kasbah entered and reached for the guns at their hips.
Kasbah pushed back her hood. The three guards relaxed and went back to their game. The wasps quieted. Nyx wondered which of the guards was a magician. Maybe all of them. Behind the guards was an arched doorway into another room where two more blackclad women stood speaking. When they saw Kasbah, they moved away from the doorway.
Inside, the Queen sat at what looked like a real wooden desk. Behind her, a great metal disk with the phrase “submission to God” engraved in gold was affixed to the wall. All around the top border of the room ran red-and-gold gilt calligraphy that repeated two popular phrases from the prayer rote.
Queen Zaynab was a short, plump woman. Her hair had gone fully white now, a wispy cloud pinned at the base of her skull. Her face was soft and round, and though Nyx saw lines now at the edges of her black eyes and a sagging heaviness to her jowls that had not been there six years before, the Queen still looked far younger than her actual years. She looked the way the women from the First Family houses all looked; women who had lived out their lives for generations behind filters, shielded from the harsh light of the suns and the contagion-saturated winds from the front. The Queen had no descendents, had named no successor, had never married. It was in Nasheen’s interests—and therefore, Nyx’s—to keep the Queen alive. Especially now. A Nasheen engaged in civil war was a Nasheen soon overrun by Chenjans.
Kasbah gestured for the two guards inside to take up posts outside the door. When Nyx entered, Kasbah shut and secured the door behind her. A wave of scarab beetles descended from the lintel.
The Queen was dressed in a simple vest and tunic and long, toobig trousers. Her burnous was red-brown and had the soft sheen of the organic about it. Nyx had stolen a good many organic burnouses from magicians over the years. They cost a fortune in blood and body parts. It was like being clothed in the dead.
“It has been some time,” the Queen said. She did not stand, but gestured for Nyx to sit. “You look terrible.”
“I’ve been better,” Nyx admitted.
The Queen exchanged a look with Kasbah. Kasbah appeared markedly older than the Queen, though Nyx suspected they were both sidling up over fifty.
“Looks like you got out of Mushtallah,” Nyx said.
“Indeed. Sit,” the Queen said.
Nyx eased onto one of the triangular stools facing the desk. Her head swam. She was forgetting something. As she sat, it occurred to her that Kasbah hadn’t disarmed her. And no one had properly searched her for organics.
“You appear to be missing your magician,” the Queen said.
“The last job you gave me was enough for him. He’s retired.”
“To Tirhan. Yes, I know.”
Nyx wondered what they were playing at. “You called me, remember?”
“Kasbah tells me you were in Mushtallah during the bombing.”
“Too big a job for me to pull off on my own.”
“I’m well aware of who poisoned my filter and destroyed my city,” the Queen said, “if that’s what you thought to trouble me with.
But I will accept your offer of bringing her to justice.”
“So it was bel dames.” Nyx’s right hand began to tremble again. She stilled it with her left.
“Kasbah tells me you recently visited Bloodmount.”
“Had a rogue bel dame try to kill me. Turned in her head at the mount.”
The Queen and Kasbah exchanged another look.
“The bel dame council and the monarchy have a long history of… disagreement,” the Queen said. “As is well known. Over the last decade more than half of the members of the bel dame council have been killed or retired and been replaced. These new women are young radicals fresh from the front. One of them in particular has been sowing unrest for some time.
“Now the council is turning away notes that come from the palace and forcing me to rely more heavily on bounty hunters and my own private security forces. They have been recruiting bel dames at an accelerated rate.”
“You think the bel dames are putting together some kind of army?”
“Yes,” the Queen said.
“With who? They’re bloody women, but they can’t take over a whole country on their own.”
“Three members of the bel dame council are missing. They crossed the border into Tirhan six months ago. The government gave them asylum. Claimed neutrality.”
So Fatima hadn’t been blowing smoke. “Sorta ambitious, even for bel dames,” Nyx said.
“There have been many acts of terrorism this year. Not Chenjan in origin. Bel dame,” the Queen said. “Kasbah and her security team believe that some or all of the bel dame council have been conspiring to aid Chenja in overthrowing the monarchy.”
“Why? If Chenja wins the war, what does that leave for the bel dames?”
Kasbah stepped away from the door and walked to Nyx’s side. Nyx felt a sudden wave of dizziness. Her forehead prickled. When she wiped at it, her hand came away damp. Cold sweat.
“Simply put,” Kasbah said, “we don’t know.”
“But you’ve got somebody on the inside,” Nyx said. “That’s the one who got you all this information, right? Why not have her chop off some heads?”
“She was killed in the attack on Mushtallah,” the Queen said. “As was her sister, and two of our closest ancillary agents.”
“So they weren’t aiming for you. They wanted to kill their turncoats.”
“I’m sure the Queen would have been a pretty bonus,” Kasbah said. “Two decades ago, Alharazad cleansed the council of traitors to the monarchy. We need another Alharazad, and you all but volunteered. Why?”
“I’m no more Alharazad than the Prophet was a gene pirate,” Nyx said.
“I have fond memories of you delivering a note that no one else could bring to me,” the Queen said.
Nyx rubbed her eyes. “That was a long time ago. I have a price this time.”
“I paid your price last time. You squandered your advance on boys and drugs.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“I can feed you money until you burst, Nyxnissa, but I can’t invest it for you. Kasbah can give you all of the information she has.”
“My price,” Nyx said.
“Name it,” the Queen said.
“Make me a bel dame again.”
The Queen shook her head. “You know I can’t do that.”
“You can try.”
“I submitted a petition for your reinstatement six years ago,” she said. “There’s been no word.”
Fatima was telling the truth then, Nyx thought. That made a big difference. It had been worth the trip to Mushirah to find that out.
“So you can’t do it,” Nyx said.
The Queen’s eyes narrowed. “I can pay you whatever—”
“I don’t want money!” Nyx said. She slammed her fist on the Queen’s desk.
Kasbah jumped forward and put herself between Nyx and the Queen.
Nyx stood. “That’s all I needed from you,” she said, and turned.
“We are not done here,” the Queen said.
“Aren’t we?” Nyx said. “You not done using me yet? We all have a price. This is mine.”
“You bluff,” Kasbah said. She was within reach now. Nyx felt dizzy again, and sat back down. She was sweating heavily, but the room was cool. “You know what will happen to Nasheen if there’s civil war.”
“I know…” Nyx started, then shook her head. She couldn’t find the words. “I know everybody’s asking a lot from a washed up mercenary.”
“Desperate times,” the Queen said grimly.
Nyx laughed. She covered her mouth. Kasbah bent over her. “Are you mad?” Kasbah asked.
Nyx started to get up again. She needed to get out of there. She couldn’t breathe. She put a hand on the desk to steady herself, get some leverage. She stood, more or less. The world swayed.
“Are you all right?” Kasbah asked. She touched Nyx’s arm. Nyx’s skin prickled, a massive wave of pinpricks up her arm, across her chest, her neck.
“I’m fine,” Nyx said. A ripple of intense heat moved through her body. A breath of fire.
“There’s something wrong with her eyes,” the Queen said. She took a step back.
“No, really,” Nyx said. “I just need to take a piss.” She let go of the desk and turned abruptly, just to prove how well she was, how capable.
She tripped over her own feet and fell hard.
Kasbah and the Queen started yelling, but their voices were muted. Nyx felt like she was at the bottom of a deep well. Her head hurt. There was something wrong with her arm. Yes. She had fallen on it.
Nyx tried to push herself up. She saw blood on the floor. She wiped at her throbbing head. Her hand came away bloody.
“I’m just a little tired,” Nyx slurred.
Kasbah grabbed her by the braids and yanked her head back. Nyx was too tired to resist.
“Shit,” Kasbah said.
Then everything stopped.