Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! This is where Mara's machinations finally begin to pay off - and it's not a pretty sight. Once again, she gambles hard on the Game of the Council, with everything at stake...
Chapter 10: Warlord
As the Acoma household rallies itself in preparation for the honoured guests who are about to descend, Nacoya is worried about her mistress. Mara looks like she is preparing for war, rather than a dinner party.
Warlord Almecho and Lord Tecuma of the Anasati arrive with all due pomp and ceremony. Mara greets them, aware from the start that they have noticed and are displeased by Buntokapi’s absence. She avoids her father-in-law’s whispered question by jingling her bracelet accidentally on purpose, and arranges for their rest and refreshment without addressing the elephant in the room.
The day rolls on. Mara makes polite conversation with the Warlord, while Tecuma fumes. His son’s continuing absence is humiliating, and the Warlord’s discretion in not referring to it makes the whole thing Extremely Awkward. The whole point of the visit is to formally present his grandson to the Warlord, which can’t be done without the baby’s father.
Finally, many servings of booze-laden fruit later, the sun sets and the servants appear to escort them into dinner. At which point, Tecuma makes another attempt to ask where his son is.
Mara deflects the question, the Warlord discreetly pretends not to have noticed the insulting situation which is only getting worse by the minute, and they sit down to dinner amid the blessings of a priest, and the playing of fine musicians. Later, exotic dancers arrive to entertain the guests.
Lord Tecuma reaches the end of his tether. He interrupts the entertainment to bellow his question for a third time - where is his son Buntokapi?
Mara plays the innocent, begging him to drink wine before they discuss it further.
Almecho finally steps in, insisting that Mara send for her husband.
Deferential to them both, and showing her fear, Mara tells them that she cannot do as they request, but in time she hopes her husband will explain himself personally.
Lord Tecuma demands more information, angrier and angrier about the insult to the Warlord. Mara implies that her husband's insult to them is deliberate, allowing this admission to be dragged out of her. Tecuma presses further, bullying and shouting until Mara hesitantly repeats her husband’s exact words:
“My Lord Husband said, ‘If the Warlord arrives, he can damn well wait upon my pleasure.’”
Everyone is shocked. Now the Warlord takes direct involvement in the conversation, pressing Mara as to why she won't send for her husband, until she admits that Buntokapi is still at his townhouse at Sulan-Q, and threatened to kill the next servant sent to him.
Both men are furious, and confused. Mara makes an ancient gesture to signify that family honour is about to be compromised at the command of a superior. She then “reluctantly” allows Nacoya to testify as to Bunto’s words, including the bit about his father and the Warlord sitting in the needra pens and sleeping in the shit.
Furious at this appalling insult, the Warlord threatens to call the Oaxatucan (his own family) to destroy the Acoma. Horrified, Tecuma knows that this means outright clan war, something that is usually prevented by the careful rules (actually they're more like guidelines) of the Game of the Council. While the Anasati would not be directly involved because they belong to a different clan as the Oaxatucan and the Acoma, he would have to stand passively by and watch as his son and new baby grandson were destroyed.
Tecuma struggles to convince Almecho that calling clan war would damage the Alliance, and anger the Great Ones, which means that Almecho is likely to lose his position as Warlord to Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi. No more conquest on the barbarian world for him!
Only their mutual hatred of Jingu calms the Warlord’s rage. He concedes the point, and decides merely to make Bunto grovel for the gross insults.
Lord Tecuma tells Mara that she must personally go to Bunto and tell him his father awaits.
Nacoya then lets fly the last of the truth bombs - that Bunto gave previous instructions that if his father arrived, they were to tell him to go piss in the river but downstream so as not to poison the fish.
That, at least, gets a laugh out of the Warlord, but it is a bitter victory. He is going to have his satisfaction now that Bunto has caused public insult to his own father. Either Buntokapi must take his own life in expiation, or Tecuma must disown and call blood feud against Buntokapi and the Acoma.
It is done.
As Tecuma leaves for Sulan-Q, Mara feels no triumph or exhilaration at what she has done. She waits to hear whether Buntokapi has chosen honour and his vow to the Acoma natami over his own pride.
In the middle of the night, she rises to discover that Papewaio is standing as personal guard at her door - his excuse is that Keyoke heard mutterings among the Warlord’s men, but she realises he is also insuring against the possibility that Buntokapi himself might return in the night to seek vengeance against his wife, against the bounds of honour but definitely within the bounds of possibility.
By raising a hand against his Lord, even to defend his Lady’s life, Papewaio’s life would be forfeit, but of course he is already marked for death.
The day that follows is long and hot. Mara remains in her contemplation glade with the baby, ostensibly to pray for the safety of her family, but in reality to avoid the visible fear of all her servants. She has risked everyone’s safety for this one, epic gamble.
At noon, the hottest part of the day, Mara is joined in the private glade by the one person who has equal right to be there: her disgraced husband.
He stopped on the walk, his sandals showering a fine spray of gravel into the water. Reflections shattered into a thousand fleeing ripples, and the li birds fell silent in the branches overhead. ‘Wife, you are like the pusk adder of the jungles, whose markings are pretty enough to be mistaken for a flower when it lies at rest. But its strike is swift and its bite is fatal.’
Bunto challenges Mara - how could she have possibly known which face he would wear, the Acoma or the Anasati? How could she have faith that he would choose to protect his new house, rather than wage war against the old?
Mara tells him that no Lord of the Acoma has ever lived in shame. He threatens to end that - he could destroy her name and her family honour, even now.
But Ayaki laughs in his basket, and Buntokapi notices as if for the first time that he has bruised his wife’s wrists in their argument. He makes his choice. He will die in honour, for the Acoma. But Mara, and the baby, will watch him do it.
They leave the grove together, where the warriors of the Acoma are waiting for Buntokapi. He commits ritual suicide, with all due ceremony.
As her husband is pronounced dead, Mara is chilled by the memory of his words to her in the grove:
‘If you would engage in the Game of Council, woman, you must know that the pieces you manipulate are flesh and blood. For the future, if you continue, it is right that you should remember.’
Later, she goes to the Lord of the Acoma’s study, now her own again. Jican comes to her and begs forgiveness for not feeling grief for Buntokapi - she finds the right platitudes to comfort him, well aware that he feels this conflict much more strongly than she does.
Mara is sorry about what she did to Bunto, but after deep examination, she has no regrets about her choices. Now she must move forward, and train Ayaki to be a Lord of Acoma and a man who is as different from his father as it is possible to be.
Oh, Mara, you play hardcore! I remembered that this was how she rid herself of Bunto, but what a terrible roll of the dice - the outcome could so easily have been the total destruction of the Acoma, and if the Warlord had carried through with his threats, also the political advancement of Jingu of the Minwanabi. Assassination by political suicide! Surely it would have been easier to slip him some poison and frame his mistress?
Not only did Mara have to hope that the Warlord would make the sensible, least-destructive choice in this fraught situation, she also had to hope that Buntokapi would do the same thing. The lives of everyone she knows and cares about rely on the egos of two men: one she hardly knows, and another whose faults she knows only too well. If she was relying on their honour, that at least would be a more predicable option, but it’s more complicated than that. If either man had been carried away by his anger, she and all her people would have made for mass collateral damage.
This chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, is a fascinating commentary on the usual definition of a ‘strong’ female character, and the shaming of passive female characters which happens so often in reading and writing circles. Mara exists in a society that requires her to be passive, demure and quiet, and here she turns all the assumptions about her gender into a terrible weapon.
She is only allowed to get away with her quite outrageous plan because both Almecho and Tecuma cannot believe she would do such a thing deliberately - that she is anything other than an obedient vessel owned by her husband. Bunto, however, has no illusions at all about how deliberate her moves were.
I like that so much of this chapter is contemplative. Bunto has been set up as someone with almost no redeeming features, an abusive and tyrannical bully. It would be tempting to relish his downfall and death a little more than we are encouraged to do - instead, the chapter chugs forward in a haze of trauma and anxiety. But while the book does not celebrate Mara for her elaborate assassination of her husband, it also does not call her out as wrong or evil for the choice she has made.
Ruthless, yes. But not wrong.
The return to the contemplation glade in the natami grove shows how far Buntokapi and Mara have come in their marriage - yes, their life together was a colossal failure, and yet it has changed them both irretrievably. They share what it perhaps the most honest conversation ever between them, in his final hour.
Bunto dies as a Lord of the Acoma, not as the useless third son of the Anasati. Mara also cannot and should not try to pretend the marriage did not happen. She is a mother now, far from the young girl who first took power at the deaths of her father and brother.
In the study she realises to her surprise that she does not want to just tear down Bunto’s ridiculous idea of appropriate decorations and put it back exactly as it was in her father’s day. It’s an important step for Mara, to realise that her role as Lady of the Acoma has to be about the future more than the past - romanticising her father's rule is not going to help her. Before her marriage, she was desperately treading water, making one rash decision after another in a bid to survive, and she got away with it thanks to luck and inspiration.
But now the hard work really begins.
From a feminist point of view, I find myself eyeing that baby boy of hers quite skeptically. Cute though he is, he is also the next man who will supplant Mara in her position. It’s sad that Mara is now working for the betterment of yet another Lord of the Acoma rather than in her own right. Sure, she has plenty of time to mould him in her own image (all those parents out there, can I get a hell yeah about how easy we think that process might be?), but the outcome is that Ayaki will take over the Acoma at a similar age that Mara did, in the assumption that a man in his late teens is better for the position than a forty-year old woman with the 20 years ruling experience she will then have under her belt.
Sigh. But of course, that’s an imaginary future.
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!