Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire. In this installment, we get political commentary, business advice, and Mara starts figuring out how to be Lady of the Acoma. Meanwhile, her old nurse gives her a sex talk.
Chapter 2: Evaluations
Mara awakes in the glade to find the assassin dead at her feet. Her throat is bruised, but she has been rescued by her Strike Commander, Papewaio.
They return to the house, and Papewaio confirms that it was an assassin of the Hamoi tong—hired murderers of no clan, also referred to as the Red Hands of the Flower Brotherhood.
Papewaio begs to be allowed the honour of taking his own life with a blade—he did not technically disobey Mara’s orders because she did not name him when forbidding the others to follow her, but he did trespass in the sacred family grove. His life is forfeit.
Mara refuses to let Papewaio kill himself by blade (an honourable death) and her gardeners prepare to hang him instead (a dishonourable death). Horrified, she stops them and postpones the issue.
While Mara bathes and servants tend her throat, she discusses the key points of the assassination attempt with Nacoya. Her insistence on attending the grove immediately was an error, as it did not give the gardeners a chance to sweep it for security. The servants were honour-bound to obey her commands despite knowing better.
The assassin intruded upon the sacred place of the Acoma, which suggests he was not only there to kill Mara but to steal her family natami, symbol of their honour. He attempted to kill Mara by strangulation, a death usually reserved for criminals. (Also women of low status, but Nacoya insists that as a Ruling Lady, Mara’s status is now the same as that of a man, so this attempt was especially insulting.)
Someone is attempting to wipe out the last traces of the Acoma family and their honour. If Mara dies without an heir, and the family natami is lost, then the Acoma name will disappear. Her servants will become slaves, and her soldiers will be condemned to the life of the grey warriors who eke out an outcast existence as bandits in the hills.
Nacoya is firm that of Lord Sezu’s two enemies, the Minwanabi and Anasati, it must have been the Minwanabi behind this attack as well as the deaths of Lord Sezu and his son. The Lord of the Anasati is too clever and subtle to make such a clumsy attempt. Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi has grown so powerful, he is second only to the Warlord himself in military might and status. This plot has his arrogance all over it.
Mara summons the rest of her inner circle, prepared now to start acting like a Ruling Lady. She suggests to Keyoke that they arrange a hand signal so he can warn her discreetly when she leads them into danger with her ignorance or impatience.
Now the matter of Papewaio: everyone urges her to name the time and manner of his death. Mara refuses to lose a (badly-needed) loyal soldier for her own folly. She declares that she will choose his sentence some time in the future—and meanwhile, he must wear the black rag of the condemned on his head, knowing his life is forfeit. Should Mara die before speaking his sentence, he may kill himself by the blade or visit revenge on her killer, as he sees fit.
Privately, of course, she intends never to speak his sentence and they all know it. The decision is highly unorthodox, but everyone seems pleased with it.
Mara begins her education about business matters and the extent of her property with Jican, the new hadonra. The Acoma might be lacking in people power but their other resources are healthy. Lord Sezu, unlike many other Ruling Lords, had a knack for finance, and chose competent property managers. The crops have flourished, and the Acoma herds are legendary for their good breeding stock (thanks to decisions made from pragmatism rather than ego—apparently not the Tsurani way!).
They have wealth to recruit new soldiers, but tradition dictates that they can only hire men who have a family connection to those already serving. Most available men had already been called to the Acoma before the battle.
Mara insists on sending the red cord from the assassin to Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi, as a gesture of her strength and resilience, to let him know he cannot simply roll over the Acoma. Nacoya concedes this will buy them a short respite, but pushes her own plan to preserve Mara’s family—the Ruling Lady must marry, and fast. A consort will bring his family in alliance to hers, and she will retain her control over the Acoma as Ruling Lady. Nacoya also insists that Mara needs to become quickly acquainted with sexual pleasures before her marriage, so her husband’s experience does not give him emotional power over her. Lord Sezu in his widowhood employed women of the Reed Life (licensed prostitutes) in order to protect himself from the political dangers of lust for women of his own class, and Mara’s brother Lanokota was also provided with sexual education.
Angry and offended, Mara sends Nacoya away. Surely there must be some alternative to her dire situation other than immediate marriage?
The most immediate danger is their lack of manpower, as shown when grey warrior bandits raid the Acoma herds. Keyoke will not countenance mercenaries, as they are not reliable. Only soldiers who hold Acoma honour as closely as their own, who will live and die for Mara and her family name, are acceptable, and there are few to be had. Further recruiting must be done gradually or reveal their current weakness.
Concerned at how vulnerable they are, Mara questions Keyoke about the grey warriors. Some are criminals, but most are men whose house has fallen—a fate that awaits Keyoke and the others if they lose Mara. The grey warriors might have been good men once, but to outlive your master is a sign of the gods’ displeasure.
Mara comes up with a plan. She will, against all advice, travel overland with a small caravan of goods, and only a small honour guard to protect her. The servants are dumbfounded at her apparent foolishness, but Papewaio at least seems to suspect what she is up to.
It’s so exhausting being a Ruling Lady! I felt tired for Mara just reading this chapter. So much she has to learn and achieve, with the clock ticking urgently and enemies breathing down her neck.
While the first chapter was swamped with shock and grief, we are already seeing gleams of why Mara is a character worth paying attention to—as a leader, she learns quickly and innovates out of dire necessity, time and time again. She’s been the Lady of the Acoma for one day and has already defied tradition by saving Papewaio instead of mindlessly following tradition—and she does it with such deftness that no one can complain.
It’s clear that Mara can not only think fast on her feet, but also that she is going to be a trial for her loyal followers and her enemies alike precisely because she is so unpredictable. Also, while she might have missed out on the political education offered to her brother Lanokota, she is highly experienced in negotiating to get her own way. We saw that in the last chapter when Mara described how her father gave in to her wishes to become a sister of Lashima (against his express desire) without technically defying him. Achieving her ends without conflict is already second nature to her—and I imagine to many women in this deeply constricting society.
I appreciated that Mara owned her errors from Chapter 1, and chose safety measures to deal with the fact that she has a weird power imbalance with her advisors—they know far more than her about this job she has to perform, but they also live and die by her word.
To a greater or lesser effect, this is probably the case for all hereditary rulers, especially those who come to the throne young. There is often a romanticisation of the young, untried king who is destined to rule in fantasy fiction, and already the narrative of Daughter of the Empire is poking away at that particular trope. Game of Thrones fans will spot similarities here in the portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen, far from a home she never knew and trying to figure out how to be a ruling queen from first principles. Likewise, Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon both serve as examples of why the young, untried king trope does not deserve to be romanticized… it’s basically a very BAD idea.
Being a female ruler on a world like Kelewan (or most fantasy worlds) is already so against the norm that the women in question may as well go for broke and smash a few conventions along the way. Rules are more like guidelines, yes? But you have to be careful which ones you smash and which ones are going to smash you back…
The rather lovely business and money matters scene demonstrates that Mara’s way of looking at the world is not just because she is a woman who missed out on a Ruling Lord’s education—Lord Seu was an insider and yet profited from being aware of some of the more ridiculous aspects of Tsurani culture. The idea that so many Ruling Lords select bulls for breeding because they are ‘well-endowed’ rather than for more sensible reasons is funny because it’s so believable, and I like that Jican and Mara share a joke about this.
This anecdote, like almost everything else in the book so far, does double duty, pushing the story along but also revealing more about the world of the Tsurani. Every family has a Ruling Lord who has absolute power over the rest of them—and that means that every family has a weakness, depending on the ego, emotional blind spots and other weaknesses of the person (usually “man”) at the top of the pyramid. This is a society of warring tyrants, and anyone with the ability to recognise their own faults is going to have a head start over the rest of them. Mara’s in with a chance here.
It’s in this chapter that we properly get introduced to Nacoya, Mara’s “mother of my heart.” I have to say that I remember being very annoyed and frustrated by Nacoya back in my teen reading days, but I appreciate her presence a lot more now.
Formerly Mara’s nurse, Nacoya has shrewd political acumen and is an incredibly valuable asset. Unfortunately, the fact that she changed Mara’s nappies and taught her how to use her spoon properly means that she is also a danger to Mara’s dignity. Nacoya can no longer be allowed to tell Mara what to do in public, even if she does actually know best.
But what a fabulous character! This wise, snarky and occasionally short-sighted old lady lights up every scene that she is in. She’s basically every clever wizard in every other fantasy epic, rolled into one, only her experience and advice is about domestic matters and public politics rather than how to turn yourself into an owl. Her pragmatic attitude towards sex and the power balance of partners in an aristocratic marriage is really interesting, and I love the fact that we learn from this that despite this being a world in which women are of lower status to men, there is little in the way of the fetishisation of virginity that is so often used as a narrative and worldbuilding default.
The other advisors are coming into focus as well—including their relationships with each other. Keyoke chooses Papewaio’s nervous gesture as his warning signal to Mara, because he himself is always completely still. Papewaio wears his black rag of shame “as if it were a badge of honour.” Nacoya made a good choice in picking Jican as the new hadonra after his predecessor died in the wake of Lord Sezu’s death—but she definitely stepped above her station to make that call.
The story is rattling along very well, with so much packed into these first couple of chapters. Roll on the grey warriors!
(Have you guessed yet what Mara’s cunning plan is? Have you??)
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the fantasy author of the Creature Court trilogy and one of the three voices of the Hugo-nominated Galactic Suburbia podcast. She has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection “Love and Romanpunk.” She also writes crime fiction as Livia Day. Come and find her on Twitter!