Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts!
These chapter titles are doing my head in! Talk about vague. I don’t think ‘Disquiet’ sums this one up at all. Maybe ‘Difficult Decisions 101’ or ‘A Good Marriage Proposal Is A Terrible Thing to Waste’
Summary: Bad news comes to the Acoma: Lord Tecuma of the Anasati is dead. Not unexpected, but still devastating to their interests.
Mara and Keyoke wake up Nacoya, who is ill with a cold (and very cranky about men being brought to her bedroom), to ask her advice. She believes Jiro might come around, given that he doesn’t hate Mara quite as much as Tasaio.
However, that’s a pretty high bar and Kevin points out that they shouldn’t underestimate “the human capacity for stupid, illogical, and petty behaviour.’
Mara is at a loss for how to respond to Tecuma’s death and the inevitable fallout from Jiro, and Kevin suggests a letter of condolence, which is pretty normal in his culture. To his bewilderment, the Tsurani around him have never heard of such a concept, but quickly come to appreciate its strategic value. Which… is not actually the point, but okay.
Nacoya also uses her illness and increasing age to force Mara to accept that it’s time to train her successor as First Advisor. Mara is devastated by the idea, but is at least pleased to hear who it is that Nacoya and Keyoke have in mind: Saric, Lujan’s clever cousin.
Over at House Anasati, Lord Jiro and his advisor Chumaka are bewildered when they receive the note of consolation. Chumaka tries to convince his master that Mara has a point that there is no real reason for their families to be enemies, but Jiro insists that his brother’s death must be avenged.
Chumaka can’t find a tactful way to point out that Buntokapi bullied Jiro horribly as a child, and humiliated him as an adult by becoming Ruling Lord before him. But he thinks it really loudly.
At his master’s order, Chumaka sends a tactfully worded note that leaves out the part where Jiro hopes to rape her someday (CHARMING, Jiro, let us never forget what a horrible person you are) but agrees to continue the understanding that Mara had with Lord Tecuma—as long as Ayaki is alive and the heir of House Acoma, the Anasati will not treat her as an enemy.
Some days later, Hokanu of the Shinzawai comes calling on (and possibly courting) Mara, which pretty much caps off the terrible week Kevin has been having. He is struggling with the hot Tsurani weather, his friend Patrick is champing at the bit to stage a slave uprising, and he and Mara have been fighting lately.
Added to all this, he continues to be treated as the slave he is despite his heroic actions on the night of bloody swords in the Holy City—now they’re home, he’s back to not even being allowed to carry a knife.
On top of all this, there’s Hokanu, who is charming and witty and handsome and kind and the perfect candidate for Mara’s next husband.
A cranky Kevin goes to seek Patrick, who is doing some painful weeding with the others. Patrick is unimpressed by Kevin’s information (from the former Grey Warriors in Mara’s household) about how hard it is to scrape survival in the mountains, and he points out that Kevin only comes visiting when he’s had a row with his lady.
Kevin is still thinking about what happened with the Midkemian sorcerer who freed those slaves at the games, and whether the hope for their future lies in trying to bank on that particular precedent. Patrick scoffs.
Mara enjoys her afternoon with Hokanu, though she is also on edge, confused and intrigued by her physical attraction to him. He is both nice and intelligent, and shares her distaste for caged birds and other cruelties. When he presses to hear more about her gruelling night in the Imperial Palace, she brushes off the deeper emotions by sharing an anecdote or two.
This disappoints him, and leads him to the core of his intention from the visit: he is interested in her, and has been since he first saw her, the day she married Buntokapi. He like, like likes her.
His situation has changed since they last flirted with the idea of a union between them—as second son of the Shinzawai he had hoped she might take him as a consort. But now his brother is lost to the Rift and Hokanu is his father’s heir, he can make an offer to her—OH OH.
Mara panics when she realises this is not the discreet “Sweetie my father says we can’t be together” situation that she sort of thought it was. No, Hokanu is going the full marriage proposal—though he makes it clear that this is still an informal offer, as he doesn’t want them to go through a public ritual if she’s not interested.
She already has Ayaki as the heir to the Acoma which means that her second son—their son—could be heir to the Shinzawai and the two houses would be united by being ruled by brothers. Which is adorably hopeful considering some of the fraternal relationships we’ve seen in this series so far.
When he realises how badly he has shocked Mara with this proposal, Hokanu immediately backs off to give her time to think, and assures her that while he definitely loves her, he wants her to make the choice based on what would make her happy. No pressure.
Hokanu is the best.
Nacoya takes Mara away for a quiet meltdown in the bath, and offers her some advice, but really there’s nothing she can say that Mara doesn’t already know. Hokanu is literally the best possible choice for a husband—he ticks all the boxes and then some. He is everything she could want or hope for, both politically and personally, EXCEPT for the rather inconvenient fact that she’s madly in love with her redhead barbarian slave.
Mara walks in the garden and comes across Kevin who wryly notes that he knows what she’s thinking: if she marries that nice Shinzawai boy and lets him take over the Ruling Lord duties, it would be so restful.
She laughs and admits she was totally thinking that—even if the truth is that she would be bored stupid. The idea of having someone reliable to lift some of her burdens is overwhelmingly tempting.
They discuss the marriage like adults—and the truth is, the main reason to turn Hokanu down is one of political timing, not her personal heart.
She has an intimate dinner with Hokanu later and discusses it with him—including his assumption that she would have joined his household and left a regent on her own lands for Ayaki, which he quickly realises was a dumbass idea.
The idea of two Ruling Lords attempting a traditional Tsurani marriage is nice in theory but Mara can already see the many ways in which it wouldn’t work—and as she notes, in less dangerous times, it might have been worth the risk. But their children will never not be in danger from enemies.
Hokanu is sad but continues to show that he’s a great guy by taking the mostly-rejection (it’s not so much a ‘no’ as a ‘not now but ask me again after Tasaio of the Minwanabi is dead’) on the chin and offering Mara the continuing friendship of the Shinzawai.
Slightly tactlessly, she asks a favour before he leaves, which is that she would value a discreet interview with a Great One if he happens to have one lying around (AKA his birth dad who comes to dinner sometimes).
Some days later, Mara is awoken from a lazy morning in bed with Kevin to a very specific gong which tells her that a Great One has called for tea. Panic! She hurls on her best jewellery including an iron necklace (metal! Super special.) and refuses to let Kevin join her on the grounds that Great Ones can do any damn thing they please, including obliterating anyone who offends them, and chances are Kevin will say something impolitic. Fair call, Mara.
She greets her guest, Fumita, otherwise known as Hokanu’s unacknowledged bio-dad. He is very kind and polite, much like his son, and allows Mara to ask the question that has been burning inside her since she saw Milamber (Pug) do his thing at the games.
Her question is: if a Great One may release slaves, and they can live as whole citizens (as it is rumoured those freed during the games now live) then WHO ELSE CAN? The Emperor? Ruling Lords?
Fumita gravely assures her that her question will be raised in the Assembly, then disappears in a puff of logic.
Commentary: Marry him, Mara!
Sigh. My Hokanu/Mara ship is sunk yet again. I can see her point, though, and I like the fact that it’s clear that even though Hokanu is the best, most forward-thinking and open-minded and adorable (sigh) Tsurani male available, even he assumed Mara would pack up her life to become his Lady, not that he would actually have to compromise anything to let her continue as Ruling Lady of the Acoma.
And also that she knew he hadn’t even considered the practicalities of the offer.
Still, it’s a shame, because it’s clear that tactful, genuinely nice husbands are a bit of a rarity in this culture, and Hoppara is too young to be a credible alternative.
But of course there’s Kevin. He and Mara have been together for years now, and they are partners in any recognisable sense of the word, despite that whole slavery issue which is pretty damned important, still.
I like that we see that Mara and Kevin have both been thinking the same thing about the precedent set by Milamber, even though it hasn’t been plot relevant for many chapters. They might have discussed it between themselves or not—but it’s nice to see they are on the same page, even if their resources are very different.
Cough, of course when it comes to potential partners being blind to each other’s needs, it’s worth noting that Kevin is thinking about the possibility of all the Midkemian slaves being freed, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Mara is only thinking about Kevin, because he’s still the only slave she considers to be a genuine person.
Chumaka made me smile with his geeky enthusiasm about spies, and his inner monologue about Lord Jiro’s history with his brother. Chumaka and Incomo totally need to form an ‘our masters drive us crazy’ support group, or maybe have regular Skype chats just to vent about their issues.
Actually, all the characters in these books need support groups. And/or therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. I’m surprised the entire Empire hasn’t collapsed under the weight of PTSD and other issues.
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!