Welcome back to the reread of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire! This week, Mara attends the Birthday Party of Doom, Arakasi pretends to be a warrior and a certain vengeful concubine starts honing that revenge of hers.
Worst. Birthday. Party. Ever.
Summary: Mara has faced many challenges since she took on the mantle of Ruling Lady of the Acoma, but all of this has been small potatoes compared to what she faces now—the Warlord’s birthday party, hosted by Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi on his own lands.
A week after the matter of Bruli is resolved, Arakasi the Spy Master finally returns to his mistress’s side. In his absence he has not only done what was necessary to maintain his spy network, but has gathered the most recent intelligence on the Minwanabi household.
Arakasi requests a place in Mara’s honour guard for the birthday party, which is a risk—he is someone she needs close by her at all times, but is an appalling warrior. In her honour guard, he would not only take the place of someone competent with a sword, but he would also be in great physical danger.
Sighing, Mara delegates the decision to Papewaio, who will lead her honour guard—if he is willing to entrust an officer’s plume to Arakasi, she will agree to it.
They travel upriver for six days to reach Minwanabi lands—and Arakasi, who has indeed been disguised as one of the soldiers of the honour guard, points out the mighty defences built into the prayer gate they pass through, noting that enemies of the Minwanabi who attempted to make forcible entry here would be easily destroyed.
As one of the Minwanabi’s enemies, that’s not very comforting for Mara.
The Spy Master rose with a grunt that concealed laughter. ‘I need say nothing at all. The old mother sees knives under her sleeping mat at night.’
The Minwanabi estate is grand and beautiful, like a township in its own right, surrounded by a glorious landscape. It is also armed to the teeth, every weapon and guard reminding Mara of how much she is at the mercy of her family’s greatest enemy.
When her barge finally comes ashore at the Minwanabi house, Mara is greeted by Desio, eldest son of Lord Jingu, in the formal orange and black of his family. He edges into rudeness in the brief bow he offers her, and she returns the favour, quietly forcing him to acknowledge her superior status.
Rattled, Desio then reveals that given the large number of guests arriving for the Warlord’s birthday, not all of Mara’s honour guard are to be stationed in the house barracks. Most of them are expected to stay in another barracks, in the hillside far from the house. She is horrified at this, but Desio insists that all guests are being treated equally. Nacoya makes him confirm that Lord Jingu guarantees the safety of all guests with his own honour—should harm come to Mara, he would have to expiate his shame with his own life.
It’s still a bit worrying. Mara and Papewaio choose a much smaller honour guard to accompany her to the house. Arakasi goes with the other soldiers to the distant barracks.
The house is a rabbit warren of crooked corridors and complex patterns, and when Mara sees how difficult it is to get to and from the suite she has been given, she feels certain that Lord Jingu intends her to be murdered during her stay.
Nacoya is having a quiet nervous breakdown, and Mara realises that this is the first time that the old nurse has been so far from Acoma lands. Nacoya is holding to the promise of guest-right as hope that Lord Jingu has no malicious intentions, but Mara makes it clear to her that his honour is only expected to protect Mara from an active attack by his people. If she were to die in an “accident” no one would expect him to make any amends at all.
Mara has chosen her outfit for the first reception quite deliberately—she has gowned herself with restraint rather than the ostentation of so many of the wives of her peers. She is well aware that this will support the perception that she is a young, untrained and naive girl who is out of her depth as Ruling Lady.
Lord Jingu greets Mara, and maliciously introduces her to his favoured concubine, good old Teani, who appears laden with silks and jewels, and an extreme hate-on for Mara.
Mara is not expected to acknowledge a woman of Teani’s station, and avoids the awkward moment by ignoring everything she has to say.
Lord Jingu then shows how classy he is by stating that Mara and her retinue will be seated near the kitchens—so as to be served more quickly, he says but everyone knows it is an open insult to her. Teani, who apparently never went to diplomacy classes at Spy School, says that Mara should be made to sit with the slaves, so as to please the Lord of the Anasati given the circumstances of his son’s death.
Mara and Lord Jingu engage in a slut-shaming snark exchange about his concubine and whether she should be allowed out in public. Teani is furious that her own attempts at public bitchiness are not being acknowledged directly by Mara.
Ten points to Mara for being unflappable in the face of public insult, plus another ten points later for discreetly leaving the feast early on the grounds that she has a headache.
Teani, however, has some very indiscreet plans for Mara. She goes to visit her secret lover, Shimizu, First Strike Leader of the Minwanabi, whom she has been working on for some time. He is a jealous lover, and drinks too much. As they get hot and heavy together, Teani lies to him that their Lord has given her orders to kill Mara tonight. Shimizu knows she is lying, because he himself has orders to kill Papewaio in a false raid by ‘thieves’ tomorrow night, as part of an ongoing campaign to terrify and demoralise Mara before killing her.
Not unreasonably, he assumes that Teani is lying to him so she can cheat on him with someone else.
Using her magic sex skills and husky voice, Teani suggests a compromise—she will ignore their Lord’s “orders” for tonight and tell Jingu that she tried and failed to stab Mara, thus allowing her extra saucytime with Shimizu, but only if he promises to kill Mara along with Papewaio in tomorrow night’s “accident.”
Amazingly, the logic of this bargain defeats Shimizu entirely, and also turns him on even more. So at least someone’s having a good night.
The next day, Mara moves among her peers, eating carefully and noting that very few of the representatives of the Great Families will speak to her yet—not until they are sure where she stands in the general order of things.
The Lord of the Ekamchi tells her why the Lord of the Anasati does not seem to be in attendance—he was not invited, at the Warlord’s express wish. Ekamchi also lets Mara know—with malicious glee—that the Anasati have recently been attached and suffered a great loss of men in the process. One of the Families has undoubtedly moved against them—and, as Ekamchi implies with great relish, that puts Mara in an even more precarious position.
COMMENTARY: The whole thing of disguising Arakasi as a soldier is idiotic from beginning to end. If he was there as a secretary or as Nacoya’s assistant, he would never have been separated from Mara, plus he wouldn’t be taking up a valuable spot among the soldiers. Frankly, though it probably would be too public a position for his tastes, he should be there in Nacoya’s stead, as she’s obviously far too freaked out by the situation to be able to offer much advice.
Next time, Mara, just say he’s your hairdresser.
I never ever thought about this on previous readings, but given that the Tsurani are supposed to be an Asian-based culture, and are so often described as being small, dark-haired, dark eyed, and so on, why is Teani blonde? Or rather, that colour described so often in fantasy novels and almost nowhere else, ‘tawny.’ Does she dye her hair? Is she a Midkemian in very bad disguise? Why is she the only blonde woman on the planet?
Lord Jingu is a jerk. This shouldn’t be a shock given that so much of the book is dedicated to how horrible he is, but I had no memory of his character at all and was expecting more of a Lucius Malfoy type, a smooth-talking diplomat with a sharp edge kind of character. Not this slimy toad with a juvenile sense of humour. If I was the Warlord I would not be his friend.
How on earth has Lord Jingu risen to the high position of power, status and wealth he now holds, when his personnel skills are so lacking? Not only is he failing to notice that Teani has become a wild card who is letting her own vendetta getting in the way of his orders (not to mention that whole thing where she’s a double agent for the Anasati), but his First Strike Leader is an erratic drunk more interested in his girlfriend’s fidelity than in either his master or his quite important job.
The lesson I am taking from this chapter is that Mara has been both fortunate and thoughtful in picking the people to support her, and Lord Jingu has got seriously lazy about it. Gee, I wonder if that’s going to come back to bite him somewhere uncomfortable?
Speaking of Mara’s excellent staff, I am finding myself quite unreasonably outraged by this plan the Minwanabi are hatching to attack Papewaio. Leave Mara’s boys alone! She needs her boys!
I have a bad feeling about this birthday party. And indeed the cultural choices of this entire society. I have a bad feeling about EVERYTHING.
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!