Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.
This one embraces its 80s heritage by inspiring nostalgia for a certain sitcom based on a sexist premise (I know, that doesn’t narrow the field much, does it?) and pays off a lot of set up, mostly involving market prices and commercial guilds. But I’m sure there’s a whole lot more horrible murders just around the corner…
SUMMARY: It’s the morning after, though months have passed. Mara is still in the happy honeymoon phase of her relationship with Kevin, enjoying his intelligent conversation and contribution to her work as well as his sexy bedroom skills.
On this particular drowsy post-coital morning, however, Kevin decides to bring up the matter of poverty in the cities like Sulan-Q, which totally kills the mood. He is disturbed by the lack of alms and charity work to help deal with the homeless and the dispossessed.
Mara panics at his words, which are deeply heretical. She has dealt with many of his odd ideas over the last few months, but this is something that digs deep at her sense of cultural and religious identity and it reminds her how dangerous he is.
She sends Kevin away to take charge of his “malingering” countrymen who are still failing to be half decent at the whole hardworking slave thing (for shame!). This is the first time he has been sent away from her (and explicitly barred from her bed until further notice) in a very long time, and Kevin is confused by her behaviour.
Mara wants to cry, but that would shame her, and so she goes ahead with the planned meeting of her advisors. Nacoya is horribly smug at the absence of Kevin, which makes Mara want to slap her.
Arakasi brings news that Desio is spending big on some secret project, probably on large bribes and favours to accomplish something, but they don’t yet know what and why.
They’re also having problems with Lord Jidu of the Tuscalora, who is now on the brink of having to bring his choca-la to harvest and has figured out that he won’t get it through Mara’s lands without paying a hefty toll which he can’t afford.
As soon as the meeting is over, Mara is tempted to call Kevin back, but resists. She must prove who’s boss. She calls for her son to be brought to her instead, and plays with him.
Meanwhile in House Minwanabi, even Desio has figured out what Mara is up to with Lord Jidu of the Tuscalora—she is this close to claiming him as a vassal to her family. Desio wants to burn Lord Jidu’s crops so that he would be beholden to him instead—asking for a loan, at the very least—but it is impossible because the Acoma are secretly providing protective troops to keep the choca-la safe.
Tasaio is able to distract his cousin with some good news—they now know exactly who the three Acoma spies are in the Minwanabi household, and can use them to spread false reports directly to Mara.
Ultimately, Tasaio’s goals are the same as they were before—to ensure Mara is sent to the front, that her military attempts end in disaster, and that Keyoke dies.
Summer arrives, and with it a total disruption of the Tsurani economy as the Acoma yield from her new cho-ja silkworkers hits the marketplace by surprise. It is a financial triumph for the Acoma, and they emerge with standing orders for five year’s worth of silk. Jican invents a happy dance for the occasion. It the best thing that has ever happened to him.
No sooner has this happened than Lord Jidu arrives to beg for mercy as he stands on the edge of financial ruin. Mara is a lot more experienced at ruining Lords now, and she does not relish the fall of someone who formerly attempted to bully and take advantage of her—now she sees how much she has humiliated him, and the potential danger of taking a vassal who hates you.
Still, it’s too late to offer him his pride back without herself losing face.
Mara does her best, though. She accepts Jidu’s vassalage, but reminds him of the ancient and old-fashioned laws that the Lord of the Minwanabi demands of his vassals. She wants allies, not slaves, and to that end she will not demand the right of life and death over all members of Lord Jidu’s house, nor will she demand his profits. Instead she is the one putting an investment into this relationship—continuing to provide him with troops to guard his precious crops, and even paying for a prayer gate in honour of his family. Slyly she also adds that as a sign of trust in him, she will strip her southern border (where their estates join) of troops.
Lord Jidu goes away, stunned that she has been so generous.
Keyoke is impressed, realising that Mara has been very clever with her choices here, effectively gaining all of Lord Jidu’s soldiers to guard her own border.
Weeks have passed since Mara sent Kevin from her bed, and she still misses him badly. But there is work to do.
One day, Mara is interrupted from her visit to the cho-ja queen and the underground silk workshops to hear that her former brother-in-law, Jiro of the Anasati, is nearby with an urgent message from his father Tecuma that must be passed on in person. She hurried back to find her household already on high alert to welcome her guest with great honour.
Nacoya keeps an eye out for resentful servants who might still hold a grudge against the Anasati because of Buntokapi’s behaviour, and attempt to avenge themselves or their mistress on Jiro.
It had apparently never occurred to Mara before that moment that her servants suffered as badly under Buntokapi’s Lordship as she herself did.
Jiro turns up in all his finery with many soldiers, and brings his sarcasm A-game to the table. Mara is having none of this, and matches his arch politeness with her own, though she manages to get in a dig or two implying that he is playing postman for his father and possibly that he is still jealous enough of his brother’s former fortune to consider sleazing on to his widow.
Jiro serves her right back with the implication that he knows exactly who she’s been sleeping with lately.
Super politely, you understand.
Once all that is over with, rather than sort their feelings out through the time honoured tradition of a dance-off (which would be AMAZING), Jiro comes to the point in a vague sort of way, revealing that his father has heard rumours that Ayaki’s position (and by association, Mara’s) is under threat from a plot within the council.
Mara can’t remember a time when this wasn’t true, so she’s not sure why he bothered to come all this way.
Still, in between all the sarcasm and snark, she takes away some important information—Desio has compromised the commercial guilds, and the Omechan family has been sucking up to the Minwanabi lately.
It’s not a lot, though, and once Jiro has been sent fuming on his way, Mara is inclined to dismiss much of what he has said. Surely if it was that important, Arakasi would have already told her about it? Nacoya, however, warns her that she relies too much on Arakasi’s intelligence.
Mara sends her away too, sick of everyone. Feeling the absence of her Midkemian lover, she calls for a scribe to report on his movements. Spying on your boyfriend is almost as good as sleeping with him, right?
COMMENTARY: I’m not going to pretend to be sorry that we just skipped over the smug loved-up portion of the Mara/Kevin relationship… though I do find it odd that it took this long before he said something that reminded her that his entire way of thinking about things is blasphemous in her society.
Did he really only just notice that the Tsurani do absolutely nothing to assist people who have fallen on hard times, and in particular that they don’t have a notion of charity?
Otherwise this chapter is mostly full of events that we have heard various characters talk about and predict long before they happened. Nice to see the silk went to market as planned, and even the choca-la crop turned out okay, though less so for Lord Jidu than for Mara.
I am enjoying the character development whereby she notices things like “running rings around these men old enough to be my Dad is causing them to hate me, better learn some tact” instead of having to have this pointed out to her by her servants.
Speaking of servants, I know I’ve found it funny in the past, but Nacoya is spending way too much time fretting about her mistress’ sex life. First she approved of Kevin a little too much, and now she’s delighted to see Mara kick him to the curb.
I just had this wave of understanding. If the Mara/Kevin relationship is the Tsurani-Midkemian rendition of Who’s the Boss (and I think we can all agree that it totally is) then that makes Nacoya the sex-obsessed mother-in-law, right?
It was somewhat bewildering to be told that this is the first time Mara has realised that her husband was a chore for the servants as well as herself, given that she seemed to be well aware of it during her marriage itself. Had she blocked out that part where she kept passing pretty slave girls to him in the hopes that he would leave her alone?
The Jiro-Mara scene is the most fun that the authors have demonstrated for ages—the two characters being fiercely insulting to each other under a veil of “politeness” but basically competing for who can make the Warlord look like a basket of kittens in comparison.
I don’t remember ever having any opinions about Jiro at all in previous reads, but I’m enjoying the fact that he at least is reacting against the constraints of their over-formalised society. Also, Mara seemed to enjoy returning his snark for more snark, and I always like it when she gets to show someone how smart she is.
But how long can she keep her hands off Kevin?
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!