Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! This week, Mara goes to war over a gambling debt, and then faces a very different kind of warfare back at home...
Chapter 12: Risks
Mara approaches Lord Jidu of the Tuscalora over the insult her offered her, and his unpaid gambling debt to her late husband. Lord Jidu is a wealthy lord thanks to his thriving chocha-la crops, and should be able to pay her family what he owes. Unsurprisingly, he now patronises her and dismisses her concerns as unimportant because she is female—gambling debts are matters of honour between men, and she shouldn’t bother her silly little head about them.
Mara’s substantial military escort suggests otherwise. But it is Lord Jidu who makes the first move for them to fight over the matter. Mara takes an arrow to the arm in the skirmish. She pulls herself to her feet with the help of a fallen warrior’s sword, and realises that their own signal archer whose job it was to summon reinforcements has been dispatched—so Mara, her hands slick with blood, draws the bow and attempts to shoot the necessary arrow to let Lujan know they are under attack. She does it with the assistance of one of her men, then collapses into his arms.
Lord Jidu is smug in the superiority of his forces—right up to the point that the Acoma troops set fire to his choca-la bushes, then stand in the way to prevent his own men fighting the fire.
Jidu calls for auxiliary forces, but is still stuck between a rock and a hard place—his choice is to prevent his own financial ruin, or to destroy Mara and the Acoma. He chooses the survival of his own House, and calls off the attack.
The Acoma forces will consider a truce only if Lord Jidu offers formal apology and concedes Mara’s honour—indeed, if he does this, they swear to aid him in saving the crops. Thoroughly defeated, he agrees to this, inwardly spitting about Mara’s brilliant and terrible tactics.
Papewaio rouses Mara and brings her from her litter to speak to the other Lord. She agrees to a ceasefire and negotiations, but warns Jidu that her men will be standing by with torches in case he proves untrustworthy.
Once the fires are out, Lord Jidu tries to argue his point, that the tradition of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ means he and Bunto never pushed for debts between them to be settled right away. He insists that he cannot pay yet because so much rides on the choca-la harvest, three months away.
Finally, he admits the truth—he could pay most of the debt before the harvest comes in but that would mean he could not expand next year’s planting as he had hoped—and knowing this, Buntokapi had agreed to a favourable repayment system with interest, beginning after the harvest. He offers Mara the same deal.
With several of her soldiers lying dead because Jidu and his hadonra ignored her original query, Mara is furious at his attempt to haggle, and is of no mind to be generous with the Lord of the Tuscalora now that he is finally being straight with her.
However, he does have something that she wants—a small strip of land between her northern and southern needra fields, which has been of little value before now, but will be useful for the cho-ja settlement. Mara is willing to cancel the debt for this land and all rights associated with it, as long as Lord Jidu swears not to move against the Acoma for the term of his life.
The matter is agreed.
Papewaio speaks to Mara as they leave—his mistress is exhausted and miserable despite winning the day. Even now, she is thinking of the political ramifications of her moves, and well aware that the gully that will now be Lord Jidu’s only access to the Imperial Highway is vulnerable to floods.
Lord Jidu will have to pay the Acoma a toll for access to the market with his choca-la during these times, or risk the produce being damaged by mould. Mara is determined to charge more than he will be able to pay. His vow not to move against her family means his only choice will be to submit as her vassal.
After visiting the cho-ja queen for conversation and balms to ease her wounded shoulder, Mara returns home to find her latest suitor back on her doorstep. Bruli of the Kehotara has come a-wooing.
Though she is tired, sore and cranky, Mara submits to Nacoya’s plan which involves sexy lounging robes and fluttering eyelashes. Nacoya is determined that Bruli must be motivated by more than his father’s wish that they marry and that means rolling out the rarely-seen Mara the Flirt.
Mara feels more than a little ridiculous, but allows Nacoya and the maids to tart her up so she can practice her seductive arts. Over the course of the afternoon of experimenting on Bruli with flirtation and discreet flashes of her cleavage, she hones her skills of manipulating men with their own desires, then finally sends Bruli away to return in two days.
After which she takes a hot bath, because she feels grubby.
Does Mara’s brain ever stop strategising? The matter of the Tuscalora and the chocha-la is interesting because it shows the uphill battle that Mara is fighting as Ruling Lady of the Acoma. No matter what the actual rules are about the power she wields as a woman in a traditionally male position, the men of her own class are constantly working to cheat her out of her status, assuming she is not going to fight them as another Ruling Lord would.
Once again Mara has pulled a left-of-centre manoeuvre, hitting her opponent in the hip pocket instead of relying purely on force to win the day—but of course, that’s still a necessary strategy because she is lower in military numbers than she would like.
I found myself briefly confused in the scene where she is trying to call for reinforcements—we are told that the Acoma man who helps her is one of the former Grey Warriors who would not have honour or the ability to save her life if she hadn’t rescued him, and yet he isn’t named or identified.
Still, I always enjoy watching Mara negotiate with men who have deserved her harshest treatment.
The whole Bruli business at the end feels jarring after all the bloodshed, but it shows that a busy Ruling Lady’s work is never done. Mara for once is letting Nacoya take the lead, and it looks like the new First Advisor is using this as a training situation for Mara, about the bedroom tricks that many women traditionally use in their culture to make up for their lack of status and power.
Mara refused to listen when Nacoya tried to get her to learn all this seduction and sex-is-power business back before her wedding, and she still isn’t overly keen—it’s certainly clear that she’s going along with this only as another tactical advantage.
Sadly I don’t think that toying with Bruli’s affections is going to go any way towards repairing Mara’s uncomfortable baggage around sex and attraction after her awful marriage—and her bitter thoughts about Teani make it pretty clear that she feels these ‘womanly arts’ are shameful and disgusting.
Not that seducing and flirting to manipulate others, and thinking that’s the most valuable and necessary skill for women to have, is in any way healthy for a person or a society. But Mara’s discomfort comes out as barely-veiled disdain for other women, which I don’t especially enjoy.
As with most of Mara’s miseries, I take comfort in the fact that this is another thing she is (hopefully) going to grow beyond, in the future.
But yes, the whole ‘toy with Bruli’ stuff is less funny than I remembered, largely because Mara is finding the experience so unpleasant.
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!