Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! This week, Mara traps herself an army from the unlikeliest of places, hoping to win them over with charm and semantics. She also makes a vital choice about her future husband.
Chapter 3: Innovations
Mara’s caravan of goods trundles slowly through the mountains with a small escort, inviting itself to be hijacked. Finally, the grey warriors show up and the bandit leader, Lujan, declares the lady to be a hostage. She has other plans.
Pretending greater military strength than they possess (thanks to Keyoke play-acting in the trees with some arrows), Mara and her men capture the bandits and question them. Most of these grey warriors were indeed soldiers, but some were farmers or other workers. All belonged to families who fell in the rise to power of Almecho the current Warlord, and the Emperor Ichindar. Playing bandit is the only way they can scrape survival.
Mara feeds the men in her camp and then makes them an offer: to serve the Acoma and find true honour again, with a Tsurani family. Given that they fully expected to be enslaved at this point (as is traditional for those conquered in battle), the grey warriors are confused that she offers them service as free men to the Acoma. This offer is unprecedented in Tsurani culture.
“The tradition we live by is like the river that springs from the mountain lands and flows always to the sea. No man may turn that current uphill. To try would defy natural law. Like the Acoma, many of you have known misfortune. Like the Acoma, I ask you to join in turning the course of tradition, even as atoms sometimes cause a river to cause a new bed.”
Papewaio reveals his black scarf, adding weight to Mara’s words. The bandits can see that she is someone who has already defied convention to preserve her family name.
First the workers and farmers, and then those soldiers who lost their master, are invited to swear loyalty to Mara and accept her honour as their own. Then she turns her attention to the convicted criminals, asking for details of their crimes. Luckily they were all petty misdemeanours—Lujan had deliberately kept thieves and murderers out of his company. (Really, no thieves, that’s a bit judgy there, Lujan, considering what you’ve all been doing for a living until ten minutes ago)
Of all the grey warriors, Lujan is the most skeptical. How are they to trust that the gods approve of Mara’s scheme, which flies in the face of everything they have been taught about the honour of soldiers who have lost their house and master?
As the plan balances on a knife’s edge, Papewaio cries out the details of his kin, and the Houses in which his cousins serve, until he finds Toram, a man who is related to him by a flimsy thread. Using this system, they all exchange bloodlines, finding more and more grey warriors who can claim some connection to a soldier already serving the Acoma.
Lujan is reluctantly impressed, they all join Mara’s merry band. Exhausted and worn out, they process back to the Acoma estates.
For Mara, this is her first strategic victory—her first “win” in the Game of the Council, though it is a move she will never disclose to the other players.
Back home, as Jican and his people scurry around to provide for such a large influx of men—more than two hundred, in all—Mara receives a private scolding from Nacoya who is so furious about the risk Mara took that she physically shakes her.
Fed up with being treated like a child, Mara invokes her power as Ruling Lady:
“Mother of my heart, of all who serve me, you are most loved. But never forget for an instant you serve me. Touch me like that, address me in such a manner again, Nacoya, ever—and I will have you beaten like a kitchen slave. Do you understand?”
Her concession to Nacoya after this is to return to the discussion of Mara’s marriage. There are many families who would have something to gain from an alliance with the Acoma, as well as much to offer in return. However, finding families that are not ensnared via alliances with the Minwanabi or Anasati is very difficult.
If the Minwanabi are the family with most power, Mara asks, which family have the greatest political connections? Nacoya replies: the Anasati.
Mara decides in that case, that she will marry a son of the Anasati.
Cue the ominous music!
Oh, the strategy! I love how much of this book is about thinking your way through problems rather than using might or magic.
We saw hints of it in earlier chapters, but this is the first time that Mara unashamedly plays the Girl Card. In her initial negotiations with the bandits she simpers, stamps her foot, and does a very good impersonation of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. It’s all a front, of course, to make her seem more vulnerable before she sticks the knife in.
Speaking of sticking knives in, this may be a good point to note the weaponry used by our characters. It has not yet been explicitly discussed, but it’s clear that there is a distinct shortage of metal on Kelewan. Lacquered wood, gems and other substances are used for everything from wheels to jewellery. Mara describes here her father’s sword, which is made from an ancient technique involving many layers of beaten needra hide, laminated over and over again until it provides the edge that such a weapon needs.
This is a fascinating piece of worldbuilding, because it affects everything from the economy of Kelewan to the Rift War itself, and is only going to get more and more important as the story goes on. Right now, it’s a footnote, but one to pay attention to.
This chapter is less stuffed with plot than the previous two, as it’s based mostly around the encounter with the grey warriors. Lujan is a favourite of mine, so it’s nice to see him turn up. And of course it’s a major breakthrough for Mara to have figured out this strategy all on her own. Obviously she had let Keyoke, Papewaio and her other soldiers in on it ahead of time, but the plan is hers.
Not everyone knew that they were walking deliberately into an ambush, though—the narrative makes it explicit that the slaves carrying Mara’s litter have no idea what’s going on. I can’t tell you how bizarre it is to be reading a story about a character who is intended to be an underdog but still travels everywhere on the backs of slaves.
Slavery is crucial to this particular storyline, though. Service to a Ruling House is not seen as slavery, but an exchange of honour—for the workers, and the soldiers alike. But I find it fascinating that Keyoke was so firm that you couldn’t trust mercenaries in positions of importance in the household, and yet it’s okay to have your mistress carried around by ACTUAL SLAVES. Are slaves allowed to have honour too? How do you know they won’t revolt?
I know that historically there are quite strong and nuanced differences between a medieval serf and say a Roman slave, but how much autonomy do Mara’s servants and soldiers have, given that their entire concept of honour is tied up with obeying her in all things?
It is very clear, however, that serving a household is seen as greatly honourable, and being taken in slavery is not – even though service in a household seems to pretty much put you into the hands of your master as a possession. I suppose the choice is a big part of the difference, and it’s clear that Mara’s people hate the idea of being slaves to the Minwanabi even though Mara herself could have them whipped or killed at a moment’s notice.
Honour is key of course to just about everything in this world. The perception of honour makes everyone feel proud (or unproud) of their position on the Wheel of Life – and there is the sinister concept that people of a lower status are there because they have displeased the gods. Religion is what keeps this world working.
The issue of how much autonomy the family servants have also puts something of a different slant on the issue of Mara’s brother Lanokapi and her father bringing in prostitutes from the Reed Life to deal with their sexual needs—does that mean they didn’t screw the help? Are servants in the house protected from being used for sex by their master in a way that Edwardian servants (one of many historical examples) were not? Does honour prevent such a thing? SO MANY QUESTIONS. Believe me, I’ll be returning to some of these.
Mara offers the grey warriors a second chance at honour, something they never expected, and it could well be a winning move for her because she is taking advantage of a resource that her peers would not even recognise as an option. But I do find it fascinating that the Tsurani culture is so centred around family honour and loyalty that not one of the grey warriors decides that freedom is a better option than indentured servitude.
Though in this instance, freedom is associated strongly with suffering and starvation, not to mention criminal activities, so it’s not a very difficult choice…
As for Mara’s impending marriage, I remember enough of this book to be moaning “Nooooo1” as she chooses to align herself with one of her father’s two greatest enemies. But it’s clear that while Mara has proved herself to be innovative with strategy, she’s also a gambler. Having done so well already today, she’s betting the big money on a pretty risky (and apparently impulsive) roll of the dice. A good marriage to a family with solid reputation or resources isn’t enough of a temptation for her—she wants to land a much more substantial and powerful prize.
There’s nothing more dangerous than starting a new game when you’re feeling lucky.
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!