Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! Two chapters this week. Mara gains a spy network, and negotiates to host a new cho-ja queen on her land… giant insects holding tea parties, people! How can you not love these books?
Chapter 5: Bargain
Arakasi, former spymaster of the fallen Lord of the Tuskai, negotiates with Mara for the service of his spy network. They are impressed with each other, but Arakasi insists his network must remain anonymous even from her.
“I may not have served my master as well as I wished, but I protect those who worked so diligently on his behalf—in ways as dangerous to them as battle to a soldier. A spy dies in shame by the rope. My people risk both life and honour for a master they will not betray. I ensure that no matter what may happen, their master cannot betray them.”
His service comes with a warning, too: the Lord of the Tuskai’s downfall was at least partly because Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi feared his reputation for knowing everything. Arakasi also believes that his former master did not have enough financial resources to take proper advantage of the fruits of his superior information-gathering.
Mara agrees to Arakasi’s terms, including his vow that the spy service be dedicated to bringing down the Minwanabi. He immediately repays her trust by sharing a vital piece of information: a cho-ja hive in the woodlands near the House of Inrodaka is about to spawn a new queen.
The cho-ja are an insectoid species with their own system of loyalty and honour; if Mara can convince the new queen to live on Acoma lands, she will come with three hundred warriors to start with, and a cho-ja warrior is easily equal to two humans. The cho-ja are also expert miners, discovering precious gems and rare metals in their underground tunnels; and elegant craftworkers, producing work of great value and beauty and holding the secret of silk-production.
There is no time to lose.
Mara and her retinue mount a fast expedition, crossing through the estates of several Ruling Lords without permission thanks to the guidance and information supplied by Arakasi. After more than seven days of hot, exhausting travel, they arrive at the border of the Inrodaka lands, where a cho-ja hive is situated.
The cho-ja have always been independent, though many Tsurani assume they are a subjugated race; they make treaties with humans rather than fighting them. It is rare for humans to understand anything of the cho-ja ways—Mara is lucky in that Keyoke has military experience fighting alongside cho-ja warriors, while Arakasi once spent a week hiding in a cho-ja hive and is more knowledgeable than most about how they think and act.
These cho-ja are used to negotiating with the Lord of the Inrodaka and his advisors—they have never met a Tsurani woman before and are greatly intrigued by Mara or as they call her, “a human queen.” Unfortunately Arakasi’s intelligence has brought her here a little too swiftly, and the new cho-ja queen is not yet mature enough to come outside the hive for negotiations.
Unwilling to give up so easily, Mara petitions to come inside the hive and talk with the queen there. Her men are alarmed at the security risk, but the cho-ja take it as a great compliment. No human has ever made such an offer before, as it is against usual Tsurani guest-custom.
In the hive, Mara presents herself to the old queen and meets the new queen, who is still too young to even speak Tsurani language. Mara tells her she is beautiful, and the old queen informs her that negotiations have already begun. As they discuss suitable land for the new hive, the old queen translating for her daughter, word comes through that another Lord has arrived, to bargain against Mara for the new hive.
Tea ceremonies are better with chocha!
While there’s some hard travel in this chapter, the main focus is two formal ceremonies: the chocha ceremony at the beginning where Arakasi negotiates his deal with Mara, and the meeting in the cho-ja hive at the end.
(Chocha serves as the ‘not coffee’ default drink of the Acoma, though we later learn that it is in fact nothing like coffee OR hot chocolate, both of which exist as we understand them in Midkemia. I still find it hard to imagine choca as anything but a good hot chocolate, preferably served in a latte glass. For further discussion of fantasy authors creating analogues to coffee, I must direct you to Diana Wynne Jones’ classic short story “Nad and Dan and Quaffy”)
We’ve already been drip-fed enough information about Kelewan to understand how the large fauna in this world are more likely to be insectoid than mammals, as well as the importance and scarcity of metal. But these things are laid out far more deliberately here, as we meet the cho-ja.
The Tsurani and the cho-ja have a great deal in common, but have also nursed certain assumptions and misunderstandings about each other’s cultures for centuries. As always, Mara’s outsider status and her lack of education may prove useful. As Arakasi notes, this situation of a new queen needing a hive site happens so rarely, no one knows how to negotiate for it expertly!
(And of course, the Tsurani have been doing it wrong all these years…)
Chapter 6: Ceremony
Mara attempts to flatter the queen into accepting her offer, and discovers a startling truth: the Tsurani have always assumed that the cho-ja have an honour system as rigid and formalised as their own, but in actuality the cho-ja care nothing for loyalty. They serve the highest bidder.
Rallying quickly, Mara bids against the rival Lord, who remains outside the hive as is tradition. The auction takes a long time, and the elder cho-ja queen seems to enjoy setting the two Tsurani against each other. The Lord declares that he knows Mara is unable to meet the financial settlement she has offered thus far (in tools, needra hide and other useful materials that the cho-ja cannot manufacture for themselves), and Mara challenges this.
The rival Lord is revealed as Ekamchi, a friend of Inrodaka, ruler of a House only slightly better off than the Acoma, financially.
Knowing she must be bold, Mara offers to match all further bids, and in addition to present gifts of flowers and silken art to the new Queen. On top of this, she promises to visit with the Queen regularly, to discuss the affairs of the Empire. She presses the Queen to make a final decision.
The new Queen selects the Acoma estate to be her new home. When asked why, she answers that she likes Mara, who called her pretty. The courtesy that Mara showed in visiting inside the hive (against all Tsurani guest tradition) also helped to tip the balance. Tsurani civility is cho-ja rudeness…
Mara responds to this new understanding, and other clues the queen has dropped about the cho-ja, to negotiate for extra warriors and workers to join the new queen’s hive, along with those who have been specially birthed for the process. The old queen agrees that this is wise.
Along with more soldiers, Mara bargains for silk-makers—the price is steep, including thyza (grain) and weapons, but the pay off will be immense in the years to come. A flourishing silk trade will be the making of the Acoma.
Mara finally leaves the queens of the cho-ja hive, their business complete; the new queen will come to Acoma lands in the autumn. As she and her people step outside, however, they are approached by the Lords of Inrodaka and Ekamchi, who accuse them of trespass and theft.
Exhausted and furious, Mara declares that the cho-ja grounds are neutral territory, and she has bargained with the queen in good faith. Inrodaka had promised exclusive rights to the cho-ja queen to his friend Ekamchi, and is angry at her causing him to break his word. Mara challenges his presumption, and refuses to take responsibility for his loss of face.
Inrodaka is on the verge of commanding his soldiers to attack Mara and her men, when the cho-ja emerge. The old queen’s hive are still technically Inrodaka’s allies, but they name Mara their guest and insist both armies leave the field immediately to prevent bloodshed.
Inrodaka is horrified, as this hive have served his family for several generations.
The cho-ja Lax’l corrects him, noting that they are allies, not slaves. A hundred of the Queen’s warriors will now escort Mara to the limit of the Inrodaka borders, and to safety. Mara has made a friend as well as an ally today in the young cho-ja Queen.
Arakasi has proven his worth with this expedition. Mara sends him away to reactivate his network, and to return within a year. The password “The young queen’s silk-makers” will serve them if he has urgent need of her. Without actually stating the words, they have both agreed that he shall not swear fealty to the Acoma natami until he returns—which allows him to remain free of any obligation to the incoming Lord of the Acoma for the time being.
Much like the new cho-ja queen, Arakasi’s connection to Mara is to be (for now) an alliance, not an act of fealty. He disappears into the night.
Mara returns to the Acoma estate in time for her wedding. She is nervous about her ability to handle Buntokapi, and worries about his brutish nature.
The wedding day begins well before dawn, with the arrival of lesser ranked guests. Mara dresses in the elaborate costume of the bride, feeling detached from the proceedings, and prays to Lashima to give her the strength to accept her father’s enemy as her husband, so that the Acoma may rise in strength in the Game of the Council.
It’s very clear that Mara’s happiness and wellbeing comes from the political and strategic side of being a Ruling Lady. She is truly alive when negotiating with the cho-ja queens, and outwitting her foes. Even the smaller details of her work—such as remembering to flatter the pride of the musician who plays blind-folded in her chambers as she is dressed for her wedding—are important to her, and help her to honour the skills she picked up from observing her father, without being formally taught to replace him.
But this wedding, and the impending marriage, is so far from her comfort zone. The idea of a “wife’s duty” is in direct opposition to the work of being a Ruling Lady. She is playing a long game here, but the day to day duty is looking pretty grisly.
Buntokapi is coming, and none of the Acoma people have any illusion that he’s going to be a fair master to serve.
Even knowing Mara’s long game, and how it is to be played out, I find this particular aspect of the story deeply frustrating. Why on earth couldn’t she shop around a little more, for a husband she could like and respect, someone she might actually trust?
Except, of course, Mara doesn’t want a husband to like, respect or trust. Right now, a husband is a means to an end, and the last thing she needs is someone she might fall in love with.
Still. Buntokapi. Ugh. This isn’t going to be pretty.
In the final prayer scene, it is clear that Mara has fully embraced her responsibility to the Acoma in all things, to the honour and future of her family, and that no earthly unhappiness or discomfort is too much sacrifice for her to make.
It still kind of makes me want to punch things.
The negotiations with the cho-ja are fascinating. Mara is growing in boldness and confidence every time she discovers another way in which traditional methods are holding the Tsurani back. The plans she has put into place over the last few chapters—the new hive, Lujan and his grey warrior recruitment drive, Arakasi and his spy network, are all part of her long term plan. They are all for the future of the Acoma, and many of them will not pay off properly for months or years.
Mara is no longer thinking one day at a time, here.
But how are all these plans going to fit in with a boorish husband who will have complete power over Mara and everyone she is sworn to protect?
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection Love and Romanpunk. Her latest fiction project is Musketeer Space, a gender-swapped space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers, published weekly as a web serial. Come and find her on Twitter!