Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! This is another 2 chapter week, largely because I’m trying to get through Mara and Bunto’s marriage as quickly as possible. Also, Arakasi’s coming home! It’s about time.
Chapter 8: Heir
Mara is very pregnant now, and convinced that her baby is a boy. Buntokapi has been proving what an appalling master he is for months now, and the slave girls are clearly quite jumpy and stressed about the sexual demands he places on them.
Bunto returns from a long hunt, and the household is thrown into its usual disarray because of his unpleasant attitude and whims. The sad part is, he really is excellent at hunting, and Mara regrets that Bunto’s father did not educate him as he did his elder sons—Bunto is a living embodiment of wasted potential.
Mara has been doing the best she can to teach herself about commerce in secret and to manage the estates when her husband’s attention is elsewhere. Constantly under siege, she recognises that he is her enemy and that her entire household is at his mercy. Something must be done. But it’s not going to be a quick fix.
Under the guise of submissiveness, Mara presents household accounts to Bunto during an evening of drunken entertainment, reminding him that no money can be spent without his approval. Her hope is to trick him into pushing more of the estate management on to her, but she miscalculates and raises his anger instead.
The next day, an urgent message from Strike-Leader Lujan alerts them to an invasion by bandits in the mountains. The heavily pregnant Mara must stay behind as a proper wife while Buntokapi and Keyoke take forces to defend their lands.
Thanks at least partly to Bunto’s strategy, they beat the bandits and find some evidence among the dead that these men were sent by the Minwanabi and his ally the Kehotara. Papewaio, Lujan and Keyoke are concerned that their master, who was effective in battle, is nevertheless an erratic military commander, and thinks nothing of the care of his men after the exciting bit (the fighting) is done.
Mara greets her husband on his return and feels a fleeting moment of pride for his military prowess, but is greatly concerned when he declares the prisoners will be hanged instead of enslaved—this is a massive, unwarranted insult to the Minwanabi and might enrage Jingu enough that he would send thousands instead of hundreds of soldiers against them next time, wiping out the Acoma.
Nacoya suspects that Mara plans to kill her husband, and privately warns her that this may need to be sooner than planned. Mara agrees, though is determined to wait until her baby is born. (If it’s a girl do we have to put up with this for another year?)
The administration of the estate finally overwhelms Buntokapi, and Jican (at Mara’s urging) manages to make it all sound so exceptionally boring that he finally gives up some of his control—though will only give the decision-making power to Jican rather than Mara, whom he insists must focus on the child she carries.
As Mara goes into labour and works hard through the night to produce the child in question, Buntokapi gets thoroughly drunk. He is in no state to greet his son and heir when he is finally born.
This chapter is very confronting in its depiction of the continual violent threat represented by Buntokapi, and yet I actually appreciate that Mara’s strategies aren’t having the same magical results that she saw in her first few weeks as Ruling Lady. Her assumptions that she could twist Bunto around her little finger were dangerously off the mark, and though she is always planning ways to manage him, they don’t always come off as she hopes. Yes, Bunto is lazy, drunken and self-absorbed, but he also has some very strong ideas about gender roles that she can’t wish away. His erratic personality doesn’t just make him a poor master and a good warrior, it also makes his actions very hard to predict.
Buntokapi is like a sword dangling over all their heads. It’s good that he is fleshed out more here as a complex character, now that Mara knows him better—he’s not just the spoiled third son, there’s a lot of stuff going on under the hood. He is quite clearly the creation of his father in many ways, and he has positive qualities despite being a quite colossal disaster area in many respects.
This is the first time that we are given explicit acknowledgement that Mara plans to rid herself of her husband—and it’s in the mouth of Nacoya, not Mara herself. I’m wondering at this point why she does plan to wait—is it the father acknowledging the child that’s important, as with the Romans, or does she want to ensure the heir is male? I guess we’ll see soon enough.
It feels strange, that we actually get a scene in Bunto’s POV, as he goes through the classic, old school scene of awaiting his impending fatherhood with pacing and the Tsurani equivalent of cigars, while his wife does all the work. Despite him getting off his face with booze, this is an oddly sympathetic portrayal of Bunto. He is at least partially invested in the wellbeing of his wife and baby.
And hey, he restrains himself from having sex with slave girls while his wife is giving birth. Way to go, Bunto! Good to know you have a moral line, and all that.
Speaking of the slave girls issue, that part of the story is all rather horrid. That’s what slavery means, of course—and it’s directly because Mara put her household in Bunto’s hands that her maids are forced to go to his bed and endure his violent and aggressive tastes. It’s pretty gross that Mara’s main thought on this topic is relief for being free of him herself, and even making an inner joke about buying ugly slaves as an act of passive aggression against her husband.
I know there isn’t much she can do to protect the women of her household from the master she directly inflicted upon them, but the least she could do is not find any amusement in the situation!
Chapter 9: Snare
Another time jump! Baby Ayaki is now two months old, and Mara is concerned that her husband keeps disappearing on mysterious trips to the city Sulan-Q.
They no longer share a bed: Mara refused to pretend to enjoy Bunto’s attempt to renew marital relations after Ayaki was born, and after four nights of her passive resistance, he beat her and then returned to sleeping with her maids.
She has not managed to reclaim management of the household, as her husband continues to be suspicious of any attempts for her to take power. He still does not know that she managed the garrison as well as the estate before their marriage, and continues many of her previous practices without knowing they were instigated by his wife.
Nacoya reports that Bunto has taken a permanent mistress in the city, and Mara is pleased. When Gijan, a friend from the Anasati, arrives to visit Bunto, Mara suspects he is there to spy for her father-in-law Lord Tecuma and puts on her innocent, dutiful wife act. Bunto summons his friend to join him in the city and later informs Mara that he has taken a town house, so she is to send all of his friends there if they call on him when he is away.
Mara sends a steady stream of servants to Bunto’s town house to build intelligence on his daily routine, as well as to pester him with the continual administrative needs of the estate. Time is growing short for her—it is nearly a year since she sent Arakasi away to reactivate his intelligence network, and she is desperate to keep that network out of the hands of her husband.
Discreetly, in case her husband has his own spies on the estate to report on her activities, she calls Jican to attend her in the nursery. Here, she gives the command for a scribe to be sent to Bunto with a business-related request at three hours after noon, the hour she now knows to be the height of Bunto’s saucy good times with his mistress Teani.
After several failed attempts to get Buntokapi’s attention via servants, Jican finally makes a personal approach. The timing, however, means that Bunto has to choose between bedding his mistress and estimating the transport of needra droppings. In a fury, he commands Jican to take all the useless paperwork to his wife instead, and not to bother him unless he asks directly for a summary of business matters.
As Bunto sinks into the arms of his mistress, Jican walks away, both of them equally satisfied with the day’s turn of events.
Midsummer comes around again, and the Acoma household is at peace. With Buntokapi now living permanently in town with Teani, and Mara once more at the helm of the estate, the world feels right again—though Mara is well aware that this happiness is an illusion that her husband could destroy at any moment. Everyone on the estate, from the maids to the soldiers to the hadonra’s staff, are enjoying Buntokapi’s absence.
Arakasi returns in the guise of an old priest. The intelligence network is now active, and he is ready to swear loyalty to the Acoma natami and give his reports directly to Mara’s husband, Lord of the Acoma, as is only right and proper.
Mara handles the matter carefully, as she has been preparing for this all along. She invites Arakasi to rest and dine with her, and then takes him to the natami, where he swears on behalf of his agents as well as himself. She then sends him to her husband in Sulan-Q, suggesting he go as a servant discussing needra hides. If she has timed it correctly, he should be arriving at the height of Bunto’s passion with his mistress…
After a long and agonising wait, Mara receives Arakasi back again with a swollen bruise on his face. He reports that her husband went into a fury and declared that any business matter he had to discuss should be brought to Jican and Mara alone.
Arakasi was not fooled. ‘“When the Game of the Council enters the home, the wise servant does not play,”’ he quoted. ‘In honour, I must do exactly as my Lord bids, and I will assume things are as they seem until proven otherwise.’ His stare turned cold then, even in the veiling of shadow of dusk. ‘But I am loyal to the Acoma. My heart is with you, Mara of the Acoma, because you gave me colours to wear, but I am duty-bound to obey my lawful Lord. I will not betray him.’
Now that they understand each other, they get on with the important business of espionage. Arakasi shares all manner of intelligence with Mara, including the disturbing information that Bunto’s mistress Teani is a Minwanabi agent.
As the night wears on and they converse further about the Game of the Council, Mara and Arakasi come to respect each other’s intelligence and wit even further. This is the beginning of a beautiful alliance.
The next day sees an unexpected arrival: the ancient Lord Chipaka of House Jandewaio has come to pay his respects to the new Lord and Lady of the Acoma with his family. Half-blind and somewhat frail (though still frisky enough to sleaze on to any young women who come close enough), he assumes Mara is a servant rather than the Lady of the Acoma. She sends him to wait on Bunto at the townhouse, assuring him that he will receive all due hospitality.
Three days later, Bunto comes home in a fury, having had his house turned upside down by the arrival, and having had to send Teani away to avoid her being groped by the senile old Lord Chipaka. In his rage, he demands that no one be sent to his town house without his prior consent. Pretending confusion, Mara requests clarification as he surely can’t mean that about anyone important, such as a member of the High Council or his father.
Annoyed and further irritated by the wailing baby Ayaki, Bunto roars that his father can go piss in the river. When Mara prods him further, he declares that even Almecho, the Warlord himself, can wait upon Bunto’s pleasure among the needra shit in the pens rather than be sent along to his townhouse.
Mara makes a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to discuss this order in further detail, only to be hit across the face and told that no servants or messengers are ever to be sent to Bunto at his townhouse, EVER, so there. As he marches away in righteous indignation, Nacoya notes that he gave Mara no opportunity to mention the letter from his father.
Quietly, Mara agrees that her husband did indeed prevent her from discussing the letter, which includes notification of his father’s impending arrival with Almecho the Warlord.
Ominous music for Bunto!
“And business matters are never conducted in the nursery.”
I love this! Poor old Jican is summoned for a covert business meeting while Ayaki’s nappy is being changed. Mara is bringing the ladyparts to her political manoeuvrings. Her year of hiding under the radar from Bunto has honed all manner of sneaky skills.
The whole chapter is about Mara giving her husband enough rope to hang himself, and doing so without any overt sign of rebellion or aggression in her marriage. It’s a masterwork, performed with a coldblooded expertise that comes from a long year of suffering the consequences of a society where wives are forced into submission and duty above even their own basic needs.
The Arakasi interlude is the most interesting to me, because I’m used to thinking of him as one of Mara’s devoted people, but he’s not there yet. While they might obey Bunto to the letter because honour dictates that they do, it’s pretty obvious that the Acoma household are more genuinely loyal to Mara than her interloper husband. Arakasi, however, is firmly entrenched in the traditional honour system, and hasn’t yet been exposed to her more subversive, inspiring ideas. While he likes Mara personally, the Bro Code is paramount.
Mara plays Arakasi like a piano, and while he isn’t fooled by what she has done to prove her husband is unworthy of being treated as Lord of the Acoma, Arakasi lets her get away with it. She is the boss he has always wanted, and he is already getting a sense that they will do amazing things together. Theirs is a platonic, dynamic friendship which stems from mutual intelligence and respect, and this chapter cements that—if we were reading a romance, this would be the scene where they share each other’s life story after shagging each other’s brains out.
Instead, it’s a long, hot night of earnest discussions about politics, intelligence and strategy.
Meanwhile, that rope around Bunto’s neck is tightening beautifully. I find it weirdly compelling to read the repeated use of messengers, admin workers and general bureaucracy to test Bunto’s weaknesses, so that Mara can predict his responses when she needs to. She scores one solid win when he finally hands over the administrative responsibilities to her, and then another when Buntokapi sends Arakasi back to her, but it’s not until the final moments of the chapter that we see exactly what big prize Mara is playing for.
She’s got you now, Bunto. And she’s going to squeeze…
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!