Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts! Is it me, or are these chapters getting longer?
Chapter 22 -Tumult
Really, chapter headings, Tumult?
SUMMARY: It’s now six months since Axancutar stepped up as Warlord, and for the most part it has been a time of peace. Oh, and it’s the rainy season which means mud, mud and more mud.
Mara is particularly pleased with Saric, her Deputy First Advisor AKA the Emergency Backup Nacoya. Saric, Lujan’s cousin, is smart and sarcastic, and manages to skirt that line of respectful obeisance and snark that Mara enjoys in her employees.
A runner brings big news to House Acoma—the renegade Great One Milamber is back in town which means—cue drum roll—THE RIFT IS BACK OPEN.
Did anyone see that coming? I mean, apart from Mara, obviously, who would be raking it in from hot stock tips if there was a banking economy in this world.
Everything else the messenger has to say is pretty shocking. Turns out that Milamber’s return led to a battle in the Palace, with the Warlord and the Imperial Whites fighting against an army led by Kamatsu of the Shinzawai (father of Hokanu).
The Warlord has since been declared a traitor and sentenced (by the Emperor) to a dishonourable death by hanging.
Oh, and the Emperor has also forbidden any other Tsurani Lord to take Axancutar’s place as Warlord. The High Council has been dissolved and is forbidden (by that pesky Emperor again) from re-forming without his permission. So it looks like somebody has decided to prove to everyone that his position is a little more than a spiritual figurehead then!
The Great Game has been forever altered, and no one is entirely clear what the new rules are.
After two weeks of stress, confusion and snippets of very outlandish rumours about the Emperor and his shenanigans, Mara is relieved when Arakasi finally responds to her summons, turning up in secret on a rainy night. He was far from home, investigating a matter that has been concerning him for some time—the possibility that his network has been compromised by Minwanabi spies. The ambush that nearly killed Keyoke has never sat right with Arakasi.
For now, though, he is needed to inform his mistress about what is going on at the Holy City of Kentosani.
One of Arakasi’s palace spies was unfortunately killed in all the chaos, which he is taking deeply to heart, but he still has some useful intelligence to share:
Milamber did indeed return to Kelewan by way of a Rift, though no one seems to know where it is. He and two others from his homeland were taken prisoner by other Great Ones working for Axancutar—which is a rather dubious way for the Warlord to get around that rule about Great Ones having the highest level of diplomatic immunity in the Empire.
Arakasi does not know this for sure, but he thinks it is likely that Axancutar was out to assassinate the Emperor and take his throne. Certainly, one of the two Great Ones used by the Warlord turned against him and gave evidence that this was the case, and it was the excuse that the Emperor gave for his execution.
Kamatsu of the Shinzawai now commands the Imperial Whites on behalf of the Emperor, as a Force Commander but not as Warlord.
Mara works through many of the political implications of all this, but much of it is still beyond her. Kevin believes that the Emperor Ichindar is after absolute power, in the manner of Midkemian kings, but Mara is convinced that the Empire is not robust enough to adapt to such a deep cultural power shift.
As Arakasi takes his leave, Mara plots out her next move. She will return to Kentosani and wishes Nacoya to send word to all the Lords in the Jade Eye Party inviting them them to dine with her in the Holy City—and also to announce a meeting of Clan Hadama in the High Council hall in six weeks.
When Nacoya points out that many of Clan Hadama had close ties to Axancutar and his Party and thus won’t be comfortable returning to the Imperial Palace so soon, Mara changes the wording of her announcement to make it clear that it is an order, not a request.
Before preparing for the trip back (yet again) to the Holy City, Mara holds a formal ceremony of Acoma troops, handing out promotions and commendations. Kevin is surprised to see her name two officers Force Leaders, as this is a rank he hadn’t previously heard of.
Ayaki (who is now old enough for cultural exposition, bless!) explains that this is a subcommander rank directly under Force Commander Lujan, which is a sign that the army is getting too large to have a single leader. Tasaio of the Minwanabi has four Force Leaders… but more to the point, it suggests Mara is preparing herself to divide her army for some purpose.
For the first time, Kevin starts trying to work out exactly how many soldiers his mistress has at her command—it’s tricky because there is no set number for a patrol or company, but his best estimate suggests around two thousand men, which is extraordinary considering that she started out with 35 back in Chapter 1 of Daughter of the Empire.
It occurs to Kevin that his sweetie might not just be amassing these forces just for defence…
The day of the Clan Hadama meeting comes, and upon early arrival in the High Council hall, Mara walks straight past her usual seat and places herself instead in the position of Clan Warchief.
One by one, the Lords of her Clan arrive and see Mara’s position and have quiet internal meltdowns. Those who acknowledge her presence without challenging her position have officially chosen a side—for themselves and in some cases, for their vassals.
Lord Benshai of the Chekowara, former holder of the Clanchief seat, finally arrives and is the first to openly protest what Mara has done.
She takes this as an opportunity to give one hell of a speech to the whole room, publicly smacking them down for not coming to her aid when she was vulnerable after the death of her father, and challenging the long-held societal tradition that when bad stuff happens, you claim it’s the will of the gods and move on.
It was the work of the Minwanabi, not the gods, that brought Mara of the Acoma low, and it was her own hard work and fierce strategy that pulled her right up again to her current level of power.
Just as the head of every man in that hall is about to explode at her presumption and arrogance, Mara stops publicly spanking them and produces the carrot instead of the stick: an exclusive trading agreement to import and export certain items through the Rift to Midkemia.
You know, that little piece of paper she hooked up for herself when everyone thought the Rift would never open again? It’s official, Mara is Kelewan’s first stockbroker, and she made an astounding trade in futures. What’s more, she is willing to share with her entire Clan.
But only those kinsmen who prove they are family to her in action as well as blood—and do so right now, today. She summons up all of her power of rhetoric to remind them how dangerous she has proven to be to her enemies. With one last reminder that she is basically all that stands between them and Tasaio of the Minwanabi taking ultimate power, Mara sits back and lets them all decide to give her a ringing endorsement as Clan Warchief.
Once that’s done and they have all recovered from the standing ovation, Mara goes on to make plans with the clan—specifically to unite their honour and their political alliances and to make sure everyone knows that loyalty to the Empire is their most important priority right now.
After the meeting, Mara visits the Keeper of the Seals to remind him of the trading concessions that she negotiated. He all but laughs at her, admitting that she did well to trick him into allowing them to her, but pointing out that neither of the Rifts (old or new) are under Imperial control—they are on private land and thus it doesn’t matter what rights Mara has to trade, because she does not have rights to travel through the Rifts.
To her dismay, Mara learns that the most recent Rift is actually in the City of the Magicians. The other is on the lands of a man named Nehota—a former hadonra of Milamber himself, now a minor Ruling Lord of a tiny House in an unruly and unpredictable Clan, married to a former slave (freed by Milamber before the act was deemed illegal).
Back home, Mara is scolded by Nacoya for making a target of herself in becoming Clan Warchief. Her request to use Nehota’s Rift is soon denied, and her request to Fumita of the Assembly of Great Ones is returned unopened. Tasaio has not yet reacted to Mara’s sudden change in status—but it’s only a matter of time.
And it had all been going so well!
Commentary: This week, I’m not even going to bother being subtle about how Arakasi is my favourite. He’s so worried about his spies, and sad that he lost one! Not only is this adorable, but he is tired and distracted enough that he doesn’t even pretend to be interested with what Mara is going to do with the intelligence he has just given her! No advice, no plotting, just: here’s the skinny, now I’m leaving by the window, bye!
It makes me wonder how many times in those meetings of theirs he was twiddling his thumbs, quietly waiting for Mara to stop talking about strategy so he could go do what he considers real work: dressing up in costumes, setting up aliases, practicing his lock picking skills…
Okay, I’ve been watching a lot of Leverage lately. But tell me that the spin off series about Arakasi and his spy network being spies behind the scenes would not be awesome.
Also kind of hilarious given that this series is in itself a spin off… and it particularly feels like it in this chapter. It’s a million years since I read the original Magician trilogy (and we’ve established already that I wasn’t overly invested in it when I did) but it definitely feels like we’re in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern situation here, with the main action happening out of the range of our protagonists, only to be reported to them through rumour and espionage.
I’m assuming that this particular latest action of Milamber (and indeed all the backstory about Nehota who sounds vaguely familiar) was covered in more detail in the original books—but honestly, I’m so much more interested in Mara’s reaction to it all that I don’t mind either way.
I also prefer Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet.
Mara is a revelation in this chapter—it’s been a slow progression, but Kevin’s observation about how her forces are no longer just for defence is a very timely one because it’s clear that her political and military decisions are no longer reactive, but active. Before now she has had so many disasters and schemes to respond to that she has had little chance to be anything other than quick-thinking and inventive, but now she finally gets to show everyone how bold she is.
I love seeing her embrace her power and her skills of political persuasion in the Clan meeting—but it’s even more interesting to show how her strategy had flaws she did not even realise. Still, she might have accidentally bluffed her way into the position of Clan Warchief on a losing (or at least not winning) hand, but the results are still pretty awesome.
Mara’s strength and her confidence have grown so much over the course of this book! It’s particularly fun to see her through the eyes of Kevin who has been there for much of this development, and yet still manages to be surprised by what she can achieve when she is particularly inspired, or angry, or devious.
I would totally vote for Mara of the Acoma to be my Prime Minister, just saying.
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!