Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts!
This one’s about politics, slavery and relationship dramah. Which probably describes most of the chapters in this book except the ones to do with desert warfare. (this chapter has no desert warfare)
Chapter 21: Keeper of the Seal
Summary: Mara is heading back to Kentosani, the Holy City, all over again. She has all sorts of political excuses for being here, but Kevin quickly realises that she is in fact here to investigate the legal ramifications of freeing a slave.
He also realises to his own surprise that he’s gone so thoroughly native and is so thoroughly in love with Mara, that if given an opportunity to stay by her side as a free man, he would take it and stay here forever.
Mara takes Arakasi with her to visit the Lord of the Ginecho, leaving Kevin to roam the marketplace and keep his big mouth out of a delicate political situation. On their way, however, they spot a proclamation from the Great Ones—it’s an Imperial Decree that the barbarian magician known as Milamber has been officially cast out of the Assembly, and that while the slaves he freed will keep their freedom, it is not to be taken as a precedent.
No Tsurani slave will ever again be legally freed.
Mara is devastated, and feels particularly guilty that she raised Kevin’s hopes. She can’t help wondering if it was her inquiry to Fumita which led to this official proclamation.
Instead of telling Kevin why she is upset, she is brusque and cold with him, keeping him at a distance. The next day, she sets out to the Palace wearing her Serious Business Hairdo.
Kevin tries to find out which Important Person they are visiting and all she will tell him is that anyone you are begging favours from is Very Important.
Turns out the person she is visiting is the Keeper of the Imperial Seal. Kevin has no idea what all this is about and prepares himself for yet another long, boring wait while Mara does something clever and political that he’ll just have to have Arakasi explain to him afterwards.
He doesn’t even catch all of what’s going on in Mara’s quiet negotiation, but his ears prick up when he realises it’s a matter to do with Midkemians and the Rift—Mara is asking for some kind of concession which is apparently irrelevant and unimportant, because the Rift is closed and as far as everyone knows, will never open again.
Kevin might not know what Mara and the official are discussing, but he knows a stubborn bureaucrat when he sees one, and quietly suggests to Arakasi that a bribe might be in order. Arakasi thinks this is an inventive solution (as with the note of condolence thing, it’s not a usual Tsurani tradition) and whispers it to his mistress, who manages to grease the wheels with her usual diplomatic poise.
And that’s it for their trip to the Holy City—they’re off home again straight after this odd meeting.
Kevin is curious to know about the document Mara organised with the Keeper of the Seals—now in a locked box. Mara distracts him with sex, and then once it’s clear he is still curious, she gets angry with him and pulls the ‘Ruling Lady’ act on him, insisting that he cannot expect her confidence in all things.
They resort to all their usual dirty tricks in domestic disputes—he calls her a coward, she reminds him he’s a slave, and they arc up into a full scale row that ends with her ordering him out of her bed and into the slave pens.
As before, Kevin crawls back to Patrick and the others, but his timing is terrible. Not only is it the middle of the night, but Patrick is mourning two of their friends who were hanged for trying to escape. The Midkemian slaves are all shattered by the Holy City decree—and Kevin is gutted to realise that Mara kept the news of the decree from him.
When he thinks about it, though, he realises that Mara’s strange behaviour now makes a lot more sense, and he he should have been smarter about his fight with her—it’s not like she has a history of flying off the handle for no good reason.
As he settles down to sleep beside Patrick, he begs his old friend to keep hope alive. He has no idea what concession Mara arranged with the Keeper of the Seals, but he does think that it means she, at least, believes that someday the rift will open again.
As dawn comes, Kevin makes his way back to his mistress, aware that while her bed is more comfortable than the pallet where he spent the night, they both slept badly—and with a few sweet words of apology, he convinces her to take him back.
He’s not going to leave her because of the Imperial Decree… not yet, anyway.
Commentary: This one’s about honesty in relationships. Kevin and Mara are such an old married couple by now. My favourite part of this chapter is Arakasi giving them dirty looks for flirting in public—or, rather, for making him listen.
A lot of the narrative emphasis is on how Mara has changed over the years, her relationship with Kevin making her more compassionate, open-minded and questioning about her own society. But wow, has Kevin changed too. He’s so much more flexible, forgiving and sympathetic not only to Mara, but to Tsurani society and traditions in general.
It’s particularly interesting that his response to finding out about the decree is not to rail against his girlfriend keeping secrets, or to wallow in the deep unfairness of the slavery he and his friends are still subject to—no, his first thought is “Oh, now that fight we had makes so much sense.”
Much though I was very anti-Kevin when he first turned up with his self-righteousness and masculine pride, I’m really enjoying watching this relationship develop. Something that I don’t see nearly enough of in fantasy fiction is the portrayal of stable, long-term relationships/marriages between two protagonists over a number of years, and it’s really nice here to see the way that Mara and Kevin are growing into their relationship, and dealing with issues to do with trust, cultural clashes, power imbalance, etc. while maintaining a generally happy life together.
Monogamy does not mean lack of narrative tension!
I am a little amazed that Kevin’s fellow Midkemian slaves have been as patient as they have—every time we look in on Patrick it seems that they’re all on the verge of open, full-scale revolt, and then a year passes, and another and they’re still there.
It’s very clear that whatever is holding them all together, it’s not Kevin’s leadership anymore. He has become all but a stranger to his former friends, and his priorities are all about Mara, Ayaki and House Acoma.
Bet that’s not going to blow up in his face at all.
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!