Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.
All aboard for a magical journey to the Holy City. Just step politely over the corpses in the circus maximus. Popcorn will be provided.
Chapter 14: Celebration
Arakasi has seriously misread the Jiro-Desio bromance, assuming that their meeting was about the Anasati warning the Minwanabi off. Meanwhile, Mara gears up for yet another trip—this time, to the Holy City.
She is thinking about courting a husband again, but is unhappy about using a good man like Hokanu for political ends—but as Nacoya notes, it’s not like Mara is capable of thinking about anyone but Kevin romantically these days.
Nacoya also points out that when the time comes and Mara does take a husband, she is going to have to send Kevin away for long enough that the parentage of her first child to that new husband would not be questioned. As a First Lady she can sleep with whomever she likes after that, but the child issue has to be taken into account.
Mara knows she is right.
Before her trip, Mara has a formal meeting with the First Advisor of the Lord of the Keda who is attempting to sublet warehouse space that has been previously snapped up by the Acoma—but the Acoma only need them during fall, while the Keda desperately need them during the spring months. Mara agrees to give the Keda access to her warehouses, but she requires a vote in the Council of her choosing, which is seen as an outrageous request.
She is slowly gathering favours and votes, to help protect herself from another situation where the Minwanabi are able to move against her politically, as happened with the desert campaign.
Upon arrival at her town house in the Holy City, Mara discovers that her invitation to an important clan meeting went conveniently astray, though thanks to Arakasi, she has not missed it.
Kevin is overwhelmed by the grandeur and majesty of the council hall of the clan meeting, in which up to seventy clans are represented, bedecked in finery. When he runs out of people willing to listen to his sarcastic commentary on the whole affair, he contents himself with observations.
One of the things he notices is the way that passers by repeatedly touch a particular wall portrait, as if they don’t even know they are doing it—when he asks someone why he learns that the portrait is of a man referred to as Servant of the Empire, and that touching his image is considered lucky.
That’s the title of the book! Take a drink!
As the gathering, which seems to have been nothing more than a cocktail party with extra pretension, comes to a close, Kevin realises that Arakasi was with them all along, among Mara’s honour guard. When Kevin complains that the party was pointless, Arakasi disagrees: they now know the level of support that Mara can expect from her clan, which is currently simmering on medium.
Lord Desio has been lavish in gifts, which means that if Mara invokes a Call to Clan in the context of her blood feud with the Minwanabi, she is going to hustle a lot harder to ensure their support.
Kevin grinned in appreciation. ‘What you’re telling me is they’re saying: “Don’t invite us unless you’re going to win, because the Minwanabi might stop sending us bribes. But if you’re sure you can destroy them, then we’ll be happy to join in, so we can take our share of the plunder.”’
Arakasi laughs, and concedes the point.
Chapter 15: Chaos
Today’s entertainment at the Holy City is the formal games held in honour of the Emperor. Once again, it involves a lot of pretty costumes, shiny baubles and the Great Families of Tsuranuanni showing off to each other.
Kevin is still pretty much at sea, but going with the flow.
After several public fights, they watch a performance of dwarves and chu-ji-la (insectoids like cho-ja but smaller and apparently lacking in intelligence) re-enacting a certain desert battle of recent history.
While watching, Kevin becomes aware that several Great Ones are in the audience—including that most unusual sight, a barbarian (AKA Midkemian) Great One. His name, according to Lujan, is Milamber—and to Kevin’s consternation, he looks sort of familiar.
Arakasi brings word that there is danger of some kind—he does not know what, but something big is about to go down and he’s fairly sure it has nothing to do with the Minwanabi as Desio is off drunk somewhere and would surely stay sober if he had a plot about to go off like a rocket.
Almecho the Warlord makes his appearance, along with several Great Ones, and then the Emperor himself: Ichindar, Light of Heaven.
To Kevin’s surprise, everyone completely loses their heads at this, screaming at Ichindar like he is the Beatles and Justin Bieber rolled into one. The Emperor, it turns out, has never made a public appearance, so even the fanciest and most dignified representatives of the Great Families are having a religious experience right now.
In fact, as it turns out, no Emperor has EVER made a public appearance before. This is very new. Ichindar is delighted to announce a massive, crushing victory over the barbarian Armies of the West—which is good news for nearly everyone listening.
Kevin, understandably, does not take the news very well. He is terrified that his home, Zun, is likely to be invaded.
The next spectacle involves a hundred or so men, none of them trained fighters, being led into the arena. It is explained to Kevin that they are all condemned, and this is a clemency spectacle—the survivor of the group will be allowed to go free.
Of course, that means a whole bunch of them have to die, speeded-up Hunger Games style.
What follows is a grotesque display of bloodsport and murder, and Kevin is genuinely horrified not only by the sight of it, but by the way that the Tsurani audience are reacting—with a callous disregard for life and humanity.
The Great One called Milamber doesn’t look too impressed either, and Arakasi picks up on this as a possible concern. That’s why he’s the smart one.
Next, a vicious creature called a harulth—basically an elephant-sized, cat-like, clawed thing—is set upon a group of Midkemian slaves. TACTLESS MUCH?
To everyone’s surprise, some of the desperate barbarians are able to use strategy and blind terror to beat the harulth and kill it, inspiring the loud approval of the crowd. Kevin is pretty wrecked by the whole thing, and tears roll down his face.
The next battle is between a group of Thuril, known as proud mountain men, and more Midkemians—including one carrying a shield with the crest of Zun upon it. To everyone’s shock, the Thuril and the Midkemians turn on their handlers, teaming up to attack them. They are brought down by one of the Great Ones and his magic, and the Warlord then orders them to be hanged.
As the scaffold is set up, Milamber declares a stop to it all. The Emperor quickly disappears with his own retinue and Mara’s people decide enough is enough—if the Emperor can leave, so can they.
Milamber declares the slaves freed, which is an extraordinary and unprecedented use of Great One privilege. He and the Warlord throw down against each other in the smack fight of the century, while their audience scatters.
In the riot that follows, Kevin is the one who secures Mara and gets her to her honour guard, though he ends up with Arakasi’s knife in the process which is a definite slave no-no. Lujan covers for him.
As the Midkemian set down his shaking mistress, a voice pealed out over chaos ‘That you have lived as you have lived for centuries is no license for this cruelty. All here are now judged, and all are found wanting.’
The magician: Milamber. Kevin knew a savage surge of pride, that a man from the Kingdom had dared to place righteous compassion before decadence.
Milamber calls down a rain of water and then fire, and even earthquakes, in his vengeance against the Tsurani. Mara and her people flee to her townhouse on foot, not daring to use the litter.
Much later, Arakasi turns up alive and reports that the Warlord has retired in shame, humiliated by the Great One Milamber. He is predicted to take ritual suicide within the day.
That means a new Warlord will be needed; and nothing would be worse for the Acoma than if Desio of the Minwanabi received that honour.
COMMENTARY: So this is big! More to the point, this is where the adventures of that guy called Pug (AKA Milamber) in Feist’s solo Magician series collides messily with the Empire trilogy.
Both of these chapters are told predominantly through Kevin’s eyes, allowing for the outsider’s perspective on the Holy City which means an awful lot more of the very pretty writing that works as exotic travelogue. It also means that we have someone to ask the stupid questions of Mara, Lujan, and the others, which is something of a relief.
The grotesquerie of the public games is all very Ancient Roman, and it probably says something a bit tragic about me and my classical education that my response to it is academic nostalgia.
Poor old Kevin. I’m sympathetic with him even though he spends most of these chapters being all judgy about Tsurani society—it’s not hard to pick a side when one of the sides is killing people for sport.
And of course, for all Kevin’s judgmental anger issues ways, he is so much more restrained about these things than Milamber that it’s not even funny. I bet while they were all running for their lives, Lujan was thanking the gods that Kevin has spent all his time in Tsuranuanni banging a hot lady instead of learning mighty magic skills so he can kill people with his brain.
Did anyone else go ‘awwww’ when Lujan was so delighted Arakasi turned up alive at the town house? Just me? Okay, then.
The biggest revelation of these chapters is not only the first appearance of Ichindar the Emperor, but more information than we’ve ever heard before about the Emperor. Really, he never appears in public? That’s a fascinating insight into the power base of this culture, and shows why the Warlord is so very important, right before this particular Warlord is swept off the chessboard.
I don’t even know what the Warlord’s actual duties are, but even if I weren’t firmly on Team Acoma, I would lay bets that Desio would be terrible in the job. Don’t give him the job!
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!