Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.
In our last post, Keyoke was fighting against impossible odds, thanks to a Minwanabi plot that was many, many meetings in the making. But don’t discount the old war horse yet…
Summary: Keyoke slowly regains consciousness. He is devastated when he hears the voices of Lujan, Nacoya and Mara, assuming that they are all together in the Red God’s halls. But then Mara speaks to him in his delirium, assuring him that they are all alive.
She tells him that only six Acoma men, all badly wounded, survived the battle in the ravine. She is not surprised when he reports the breach in their intelligence that led to the trap—but she is certainly surprised when Keyoke informs her that some of the silk, at least, was hidden rather than burned.
Now that they have all exchanged the necessary information, Keyoke relaxes and prepares to enjoy his heroic death. Mara brings in musicians and scented candles to help him on his way, and a poet whose job it is to recite Keyoke’s lifetime of noble deeds. It’s probably the closest Keyoke has ever come to having a holiday.
Naturally, good old Kevin has to ruin it all. He picks a fight with Mara and Lujan over the fact that they haven’t called in a healer to try to save Keyoke, on the grounds that he had a leg amputated in the field and is officially broken.
‘So what!’ Kevin said in exasperation. ‘Keyoke’s value lies in his expertise, and even your gods-besotted healer knows a man’s brains are not in his feet!’
Finally, Kevin asks the old man himself how he feels about dying peacefully instead of fighting to get better. He employs his usual insolent attitude as he tries to convince Keyoke that Mara still needs him—that he can still serve House Acoma. They have no tactician with the skills to replace him.
Keyoke is sick and tired and angry at having his heroic death messed up by the hick Midkemian with the smart mouth.
Kevin accuses him of trying to desert his post and taking the easy way out by choosing death. He then drops the mic and leaves Keyoke to his own unsettled thoughts, and his uncomfortable deathbed.
Mara is furious at Kevin, but he is entirely unapologetic, insisting that the Tsurani take death all too lightly. If Mara can bring in the best healers to save Keyoke’s life, then he can continue to serve her as a military advisor, even if she had to make up a new job title.
Before they can get too deep into the fight, Mara is called away by an imperial messenger who brings official word that Mara is to join the Lord of the Xacatecas in Dustari with four companies of soldiers. They all know the devastating implications—and that Tasaio of the Minwanabi must be behind it.
Lujan has two thoughts in response to this information:
1) Providing four companies is well outside their current resources unless they beg the cho-ja for favours.
2) Kevin is right, damn him—they cannot afford the luxury of letting Keyoke die peacefully.
Mara agrees. She promotes Lujan to Force Commander and sends him with Kevin to speak to Keyoke. She will give the old man the title of First Advisor of War, but only if he gives permission for her to save him.
With tears in her eyes, she suggests that if he is embarrassed to be seen walking with a crutch before the men, he should be reminded of how Papewaio wore his black death rag without shame.
Oh, low blow, Mara!
Once she has Keyoke’s go ahead, she plans to send runner slaves to seek a healing priest of Hantukama and hang the expense. After all, they still have some profitable silk to reclaim—and they cannot afford to lose the alliance with the Xacatecas by giving up their only military commander who is experienced in warfare.
Even if Dustari is a trap, they still have to go through with it.
Jican is left to juggle the numbers as to the expense of war—they had been hoping to sell weapons made by the cho-ja workers to mitigate the loss of this batch of silk, but now they cannot afford to lose them. Instead, they must sell some of their prime needra stock to cover the financial blow.
Once that is sorted, and Mara has had some time to think, pray and hang out with her nearly-five-year-old son, her next port of call is to the cho-ja queen whose hive she hosts on her estate. While she and the queen have a cordial relationship, this is the first formal negotiation Mara has opened with her since they first met, and Mara has no idea what to expect.
The Queen agrees to breed and provide a company of soldier for Mara’s purposes, and they haggle extensively over the financial remuneration. The final result is a company costing almost a third more than a company of human mercenaries, but one which is far superior because the cho-ja cannot be infiltrated by spies or traitors.
Mara admits that she was not sure the Queen would allow her these soldiers at all, despite their friendship, and is quietly amazed when the Queen tells her that their friendship has nothing to do with it. To the cho-ja, soldiers are merely a commodity to be traded with humans, as it has been many centuries since they fought their own wars. Once again, she has given Mara an intriguing insight into how the cho-ja society think and the choices they make.
When she returns home, Kevin is waiting to tell her that Keyoke is ready to talk about his decision.
Mara goes to the old man, calling him grandfather of her heart for the first time, and telling him—as she has told Nacoya many times, but never him—how much she loves him.
Keyoke knows about Dustari, and that Tasaio is surely planning to use this expedition to kill Mara. He wholeheartedly agrees to become her First Advisor for War if he can be saved, and bear his crutch with the same pride Papewaio showed in adversity. He adds that Kevin came up with the idea of a crutch with a concealed sword inside (Kevin has the BEST ideas) and Mara promises to make it happen.
Now the race is on to find a healer priest who is willing to drop everything and come to help save Keyoke—and like everything else that happened today, it’s going to be expensive.
The following morning, one of Arakasi’s men reports that a priest has agreed to come by noon in exchange for a prayer gate to the Gods of Fortunate Aspect, to be built on the Acoma estate.
Mara and Kevin wait with Keyoke through the morning, hoping he can hold on long enough to be saved.
Finally, the priest of Hantukama arrives. He frowns over Keyoke’s state, hovering as he is between life and death, and asks Mara why she wants him to be saved.
There are many possible answers, but while Mara’s whole family and existence hangs on Keyoke’s survival, the only answer she gives is that they want Keyoke with them because they love him. The priest smiles and agrees that it’s an excellent reason for him to do his best work.
Through prayer, dance, and what must be actual magic, the healing priest manages to bring Keyoke back from the brink. He will survive.
Preparations now go ahead for the Dustari expedition, with the outfitting of soldiers and supply wagons being arranged during Keyoke’s slow recovery and the work he is already doing to help train Lujan in his new position. Nacoya informs Mara that she herself is feeling her age, and they need to start thinking about her successor as well.
She also notes that the requests from suitors have started banking up again, and Mara refuses to consider them—not because of the hot man she already has in her bed, but because it’s pretty dodgy the way all these would-be-husbands are coming out of the woodwork the second it looks like Mara is heading off on a suicide mission.
For once, she and Nacoya are completely on the same page.
Commentary: Okay, I’ll admit it. Kevin is totally growing on me. His boyfriend skills are mighty, and his ‘saying the tactless thing without regard for social convention’ habit is of particular use here.
I’ve been complaining and rolling my eyes about his ‘my society is more enlightened than yours’ schtick for so long that it’s a bit of a surprise to be in complete agreement with him on the matter of Keyoke and his missing leg.
What I really like about this plot development, apart from the whole thing about Keyoke still being alive which is pretty awesome, is that it follows the ongoing narrative arc of Mara making choices that go against the conventions of her culture, but ultimately strengthen her power base and give her resources and advantages that her (mostly) rule-following peers do not have.
Mara was making anti-Tsurani decisions before it was cool.
I enjoyed the way that Keyoke got so cranky about having his death interrupted, but also that Kevin’s suggestion matched so closely with Keyoke’s own greatest regrets when he thought he was dying. For too long, Mara has been relying on the same very small group of essential personnel, and they’re going to need to expand the core team into the future.
Kevin has never been more likeable than in this chapter, where he supports not only Mara but her whole extended family. I love that he goes to bat for Keyoke, showing respect for the old man despite the fact that I’m pretty sure they’ve never had a civil word for each other before now. He’s also a lot smoother at negotiating his way around Tsurani hang-ups rather than butting his head violently against them.
I love that Papewaio and his black rag get another mention, and that he is still so important to his friends long after he is gone—serving as an inspiration to both Keyoke and Mara. It’s a bit adorable.
Basically, I want to cuddle this chapter.
AND NOW TO WAR.
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!