Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.
This is the ‘Arakasi wishes they had invented telephones’ chapter in which he basically spends several week running around and bringing news to Mara, over and over again. I am reminded of Hermione Granger snapping “I am not an OWL” at Harry Potter. Possibly Hermione should buy Arakasi a stiff drink out of sympathy given that I’m pretty sure his job description does include being an owl.
Chapter 16: Regrouping
SUMMARY: Life in the big city is stressful. Mara hasn’t heard from Arakasi in a while, so is reliant on general street gossip.
Word is that the former Warlord Almecho has indeed taken his life, and that the Assembly has now stripped the magician Milamber (AKA Pug) of his Great One status and kicked him out. There’s also a rumour that Milamber wiped out the Assembly, but Mara doesn’t believe that one.
Finally, four Imperial Whites (I’m just going to pretend they look like Star Wars Stormtroopers and recommend you do the same) arrive to let Mara know that Ichindar the Emperor recommends that she heads home now—he guarantees her safe passage.
There is no mention of a call to council which is highly bizarre under the circumstances and leads Mara to suspect that Ichindar is getting into the Game of the Council on his own behalf.
Her feet are still sore and bandaged from her desperate barefoot flight through the city, and Mara’s experience inspired her to order new sandals for all of her slaves—further evidence of Kevin’s influence.
Speaking of our favourite barbarian slave, Mara overhears him trying to pacify Jican in the kitchen and discovers that Arakasi has returned to them using a cartload of spoiled vegetables as cover—the hadonra is furious about the vegetables, but there are no fresh ones to be had.
Arakasi confirms to Mara that the Warlord is indeed dead and that there has been no call to council—Desio is the loudest among the many Ruling Lords complaining about this.
Does this mean that the Emperor intends to rule himself? Kevin thinks it’s an obvious interpretation, but the Tsurani are all confused about it, as the Emperor has never been anything more than a spiritual leader, leaving all the ruling power to the Warlord.
They decide to hold off on their return home to the estate—Mara wants to be here, in the middle of things, when all is revealed about the Emperor’s next move, and besides, the streets themselves are still blocked with detritus from the riot and her litter is broken.
Ten days pass, and more becomes clear. This move of the Emperor’s was no idle whim—he had obviously prepared for the eventuality, as several high-ranked lords in the Blue Wheel Party had been tapped ahead of time to take on various aspects of the Warlord’s usual responsibilities. Those families were notably not in attendance at the games, which suggests that Milamber’s own attack was either planned or known about in advance.
Arakasi arrives one day in a rush with news of the barbarian war—the Midkemians suddenly launched a hugely effective counter-assault, leading the worst Tsurani defeat so far. Their forces have been pushed back to the valley where the Rift between worlds is contained.
Upon hearing this, Kevin manages to resist doing a victory dance, but only just.
Even more shocking, the Emperor Ichindar has apparently called for a meeting with the barbarian king to discuss peace. Kazumi of the Shinzawai (Hokanu’s older brother) was the emissary trusted with this vital offer.
Their theory now is that even if Milamber has not thrown his public hissy fit, the original plan may well have been for the Blue Wheel Party to withdraw support of the war, leaving only the Minwanabi to support Almecho the Warlord, and that Ichindar would then have made the same play for peace.
However, Mara is pretty certain that to pull all this off, there must be Great Ones whom Ichindar knew would support him over the Warlord. She sends Arakasi to investigate.
Never mind the slaves, Arakasi’s going to need new sandals soon.
The next piece of news is that the Emperor, Light of Heaven, is indeed heading off on a journey to cross through the rift and negotiate with King Lyam. Kevin is shocked at this, as he knew Lyam as a younger son of the royal family and for him to be the King now means that Lyam’s father and several of his brothers are dead.
Quietly, he contemplates the fact that he also does not know the fate of his own father and brothers either.
Kevin is devastated by the realisation that he has spent so long in relative comfort with Mara while his life in Midkemia has slipped away from him. Feeling like a traitor to his own people, he leaves the meeting in misery. Mara comes to him later and he pours his heart out to her—but admits that no matter how much he loves her and has come to enjoy so many aspects of their life together, he will never fully accept living with her as a slave.
Given the choice, though it would break his heart, he would absolutely still leave her to return home.
They cry together. She still doesn’t really get it, though, as she is bemused at the idea that the Emperor might have to give back the lands that the Tsurani have seized for the Empire—i.e. Everything on the other side of the Rift.
Life in the big city continues, with Mara receiving many visitors from the other Great Families, and eventually (thanks to a litter presented to her as a gift by Lord Chipino of the Xacatecas) visiting others to share tea and gossip.
Arakasi brings a new piece of intelligence that helps put the imperial plot into perspective—Fumita, one of the Great Ones, is actually the younger brother of the Lord of the Shinzawai, and is the birth father of Hokanu, who was adopted by his uncle.
Great Ones supposedly give up all familial ties when they come into their status and power, but in this case it seems there are still diplomatic links at the very least.
Mara decides to move her household from her town house directly into the Acoma apartment at the Imperial Palace—each Great Family has one. She chooses the day of the Emperor’s departure, knowing it is likely that her move will go unnoticed in all the clamour.
Arakasi brings more news. You knew I was going to say that, right? This time he has gossip about the royal negotiations—King Lyam is demanding massive financial reparations for, you know, his world being invaded.
Mara is outraged, because she still hasn’t got the hang of this. Kevin notes that the amount requested is about half what this war cost the Kingdom of the West, but it’s not the amount, it’s the very idea of paying reparations that goes against Tsurani culture.
Ichindar was on top of this, however, and refused to pay, but then offered a “gift” of jewels worth even more. Nice one.
The next rumour is a prisoner exchange—which should be fair enough from their end, as the Emperor wouldn’t lose any face by gifting slaves to King Lyam. But what on earth would the Tsurani do with any prisoners of war returned to them? The men would be considered honourless.
It’s a pickle.
Meanwhile, the Minwanabi are preparing swords for a war of their own—but against who? The Emperor? The Acoma? Everyone?
Days later, they hear frantic running in the Palace—something has happened—but until their Greek chorus that is Arakasi turns up, there is nothing to be done.
Finally he arrives with the news that the barbarians behaved dishonourably and attacked the Emperor, almost killing him. He was brought unconscious through the Rift, which then CLOSED, trapping most of the Warchiefs and various Lords and elder sons on the Midkemian side.
Desio of the Minwanabi is dead. Chipino of the Xacatecas is lost. The Imperial Force Commander was killed. Lord Keda was last seen bleeding on the ground. Kazumi of the Shinzawai got the Emperor out, but was trapped on the other side.
So, that’s a thing that happened.
In the shock of it all, Mara can’t even enjoy the one piece of good news about Desio of the Minwanabi because, of course, that means a far more dangerous player has been promoted to her best enemy.
Tasaio is Lord of the Minwanabi now.
COMMENTARY: O. M. G.
Okay, I had completely forgotten about this particular plot development. I was blithely reading away thinking ‘oh, prisoner exchange, I guess she has to give Kevin back now, that’s happening earlier than I thought.’
And then the Rift closed.
We’re not even two thirds of the way through this volume, and everything just got wrecked. The build up to this, with references to how the Emperor was taking so many elder sons with him on his mission of peace as hostages to their families’ good behaviour was a cute touch, and I remember thinking ‘oh that might not be good’ but holy hell!
It’s like someone picked up the Game of the Council board, shook it wildly, and then threw Monopoly money in the air with the chess pieces.
This is an odd sort of chapter because so much is happening offscreen, effectively, with poor old Arakasi running on and off stage, exactly like a Greek play. But I do like the fact that the point of view of this story is so closely tied to Mara and the people who love her, and so we’re getting a reasonably authentic idea of how stressful it was in time of war throughout history for those who weren’t on the front line, because you had to rely so much on long-delayed messages about what the hell was happening with your loved ones and indeed your country.
Mara has of course been to war in this book too (there is SO much packed into this book, people who think the middle volume of a trilogy is always padded are so very wrong) but I like the domestic politics aspect of it much better—I’ve always been more interested in the indoors rather than outdoors aspects of epic fantasy.
Still, after the fourth time I typed the words ‘Arakasi brings news’ I did rather feel like the walls of this chapter were closing in around me. There isn’t enough epic fantasy with telegraph services. Or, you know, Twitter.
@kazumi_shinzawai: trapped on the other side of the Rift! #sorrybro
@chipino_xacatecas: can someone tell my wife I’ll be late for supper? LOL #sorrybabe @isashani
@anonmessenger: hey @mara_acoma I have news, let me in, I’m the one dressed as a skeevy onion seller.
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!