Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts! This one’s all about the tasty, tasty politics. Pass the cucumber sandwiches, we have some deals to strike and some secret handshakes to devise.
Chapter 17: Grey Council
Summary: There has been no official call to council, but that’s not stopping the Ruling Lords of Tsurani, who have all decided to turn up to the council hall anyway, to find out what’s going on. It’s all very casual, nothing to see here.
Mara’s first port of call is to Tecuma of the Anasati, her father-in-law—he is polite and shares some gossip with her, but has little patience with her today as he is mourning the loss of his eldest son Halesko on the far side of the Rift. (Oops that means Jiro is first son now, let’s not think too hard about that…) She goes to hang out with her Clan instead. No one is obviously jockeying for position yet, but Mara is well aware that the Acoma are not likely to come out ahead in this latest wave of uncertainty.
Speaking of pure doom for the Acoma, guess who has just arrived home at the Minwanabi estate?
Tasaio makes a grand entrance with rain and lightning as his backdrop as he presents himself to Incomo, the First Advisor. Yes, that does mean he’s wearing a wet shirt.
Incomo is a little too familiar with his new master (ooh, first names), and is rebuked for it. He’s not even sorry.
Tasaio wants to let everyone know who’s boss now—he certainly wasn’t going to wait around for Incomo’s message about the recent death of Desio before making his move. He plans to be in the Holy City in three days to attend the meeting for New Warlord Selection.
Incomo is so turned on right now deeply excited to finally be serving a master who is “clever, competent and ambitious.” I’m genuinely happy for him.
Of course, this isn’t great news for Mara, but we can’t have everything.
Back in the Imperial Palace, everyone is on edge. Lujan reports that several families with known loyalties to the Minwanabi have been taking up their imperial apartments. The Emperor should be arriving himself within three days.
Mara has been working hard. She has had conversations with seventeen different Lords, but has only managed to bind four of them to agreements. It’s not looking good. Right now, there are so many different candidates for the position of Warlord that no one is willing to commit their vote one way or another.
Arakasi reports the arrival of the new Lord of the Keda, whose father was killed in action. Mara wishes to send a message of condolence that also informs/reminds the son of the father’s promise that she should have his vote in a matter of her choosing.
Everyone else (well, Arakasi) thinks that’s a bit tacky, but she can’t afford to be elegant about this. Tasaio is undoubtedly on his way, and Mara has to be ready for him.
The next report brings word that bands of unmarked (not clearly belonging to a House) soldiers have entered the Palace. That’s alarming.
Team Acoma wait, conserve their strength, and do their best to sleep.
Next morning, Kevin is restless and Mara takes pity on him, allowing him to accompany her to the council hall. She is shocked to notice the absence of Lord Pataki of the Sida, an old man who was once kind to her against public sentiment. She knows from his empty chair that he is dead. Three other Lords are all missing, known enemies of the Minwanabi.
Tasaio works fast.
The Game of the Council continues, with everyone politely ignoring the undoubted “accidents” that have befallen their four missing peers. The new Lord of the Keda sends public word to Mara that he will honour his father’s agreement, and this causes at least one other Lord to look at her with new respect.
Indeed, Mara is slowly becoming a figure of respect to more and more Lords. As the morning progresses, Kevin notices that people are coming to her rather vice versa. Others are noticing too.
Hoppara, the very young new Lord of the Xacatecas, makes his appearance near midday, taking his seat. Mara is quietly distressed to see him, reminded of the loss of her dear friend Lord Chipino. His son resembles him very much.
Once there is a lull in Mara’s visitors, she rises to greet Lord Hoppara. To her shock, the boy speaks a greeting to her first, acknowledging her as his superior—this is a big deal because he is the Lord of one of the Five Great Families, and the Acoma are still hovering somewhere around seventh place.
They speak of their shared loss in Lord Chipino and Mara makes it clear that she intends to be a friend and ally to Lord Hoppara, who invites her to dinner.
AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.
After a busy day of exhausting but discreet conversations, Mara joins Hoppara for dinner in his apartments. It is all very comfortable, partly because the servants know her tastes so well from the desert campaign.
Hoppara recognises Kevin from his late father’s stories and passes on some compliments, both about Kevin’s strategic skill and Mara’s general awesomeness. After beating around the bush a little, he offers Mara an informal alliance and then admits that his mother Isashani basically ordered him to do so.
He is not technically Ruling Lord for another three years, when he reaches his majority at age 25—though it is not generally known that Lady Isashani is still in charge. She remains in seclusion on the Xacatecas estate for this reason.
Hoppara lays his cards on the table—his orders are to support Mara in whatever she does, until she falls or fails in which case he is to throw all Xacatecas support behind the house of Minwanabi, for the sake of survival.
They both explain to Kevin why this would be such a last-ditch preference for the Xacatecas, and why the Minwanabi are a problem beyond the specific feud with the Acoma. There has always been something deeply wrong with the Minwanabi, especially when it comes to their taste for pain and violence.
Unfortunately, Tasaio is now likely to be the top choice for Warlord, given his military experience—families who would never have supported Desio may well now give Tasaio their support because of his strength and strategic skill.
It’s up to Mara, now, to come up with an alternative candidate for the position of Warlord—someone credible that the Xacatecas can also throw their support behind.
As they leave, Kevin gives Hoppara some quiet advice about his personal security and is pleased to see that his suggestions are acted upon instantly—after his father’s stories from the desert, Hoppara trusts Kevin’s word on such things.
Commentary: I love this stuff! This chapter represents exactly the type of fantasy fiction that I like best—politics and schemes via covert conversations in pretty houses.
The Game of the Council has been mentioned so often up until now, and we have indeed seen many of Mara’s strategies play out up close as well as from a distance. But now that she is right in the heart of the palace, everything has got rather delicious.
It’s a kind of dance, these careful exchanges of greetings and promises in the council chamber. It reminds me a bit of a Victorian novel—Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, perhaps—where courtesy, conversations and finger sandwiches are weapons in a complex form of social warfare.
I had to laugh when Arakasi was startled at Mara’s ruthlessness in dealing with the new Lord of the Keda—Arakasi, of all people, taken aback at her taking the political mileage so quickly after a man’s father has died. And yet, the new Lord of the Keda is all too willing to support Mara.
The use of reputation and public perception, and the shifts that can happen in a moment, are beautifully laid out here and come across quite vividly.
I had forgotten entirely about Hoppara, another lovely young man. After the complete romanticisation of Kevin as a bloke from outside Tsurani culture, it’s important to see that we have some genuinely nice fellows from within as well. Hoppara’s relationship with his mother Isashani is really nice, because you can see how much he appreciates and respects his mother’s experience and strength, and how that carries over into his new friendship with Mara.
Funnily enough, it’s mostly the men who respect powerful women who are going to be Mara’s allies in this Game of hers.
I also like the Hoppara-Isashani dynamic because it’s unusual to see in fantasy fiction—too often, a male ruler who is guided by his mother is portrayed as weak, or creepy, with the assumption that the mother in question is an Agrippina type. This is an idea that carries over from history, sadly, as there’s a long tradition of young men coming into their power too young, and needing to rely on their more experienced mothers—and an equally long tradition of writers and historians criticising them for it, or suggesting there is something morally wrong in a woman having that kind of power.
Ahem. No, that wasn’t my PhD thesis on Roman imperial women coming through at all, there.
If Mara’s power and strength being acknowledged is one of the signposts we have for recognising a good person in this story, then Kevin’s abilities and personhood being acknowledged despite the whole slave thing is another. Hoppara gets double points, so he’s almost certainly one of the good guys.
Sigh, that probably means he’s not going to last long. Cross fingers!
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!