Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts!
We’re getting so close to the end now! Only a handful of chapters to go. Are we going to have more brutal and traumatising deaths before this volume is done?
Summary: It’s all pretty depressing at the Acoma estate, after the funeral rites for Nacoya are done. Mara and Lujan are more aware than ever that the estate is simply too large and sprawling to be properly defended, which adds a great deal of stress to their current circumstances.
Mara is also worried that Arakasi has not been seen since one hour after the attack on Ayaki (and the simultaneous attack on herself).
The servants are beginning to mutter amongst themselves that Arakasi might actually have been involved in Tasaio’s attack; Mara doesn’t want to believe that, but where is he?
If Arakasi was a traitor, all of their work together has been for nothing.
Miserable and lonely, Mara finally fulfills a promise she made to Nacoya before her death, and writes a letter to Kamatsu of the Shinzawai, offering her hand in marriage to his son Hokanu.
She then goes to Kevin, whose wounds are healing. They have sex for the first time since the ambush—and for the first time, Mara has not prepared herself with the herbal elixir to prevent pregnancy. She may be on the verge of losing her lover forever, but part of her wants the possibility of carrying his child, even into a marriage with another man.
A few weeks pass, and Kevin is allowed up and about. He and Keyoke play with Ayaki, teaching him some basic self-defence in the hopes that it will prevent the nightmares that have plagued the boy since Nacoya’s death.
As Mara approaches her sacred family natami grove, a ragged man approaches her with a dagger… but he is not an assassin. Arakasi, filthy and battered from his time on the road. He throws himself on her mercy, and begs her to let him kill himself by his own blade.
He has arranged the murder of all five Acoma spies he had placed within the Minwanabi household, and the eleven messengers who used to carry their intelligence to him. Mara no longer has spies among the Minwanabi, but neither does she have anyone in that household who could possibly betray her, or be used against her.
Soldiers find them together and seize hold of Arakasi, asking Mara what they should do with him. Mara tells them to let him go—and then tells Arakasi that this disaster was not his fault. He never gave guarantees that his intelligence would be 100% accurate, and the responsibility for how the information was used has always been down to Mara herself.
She begs his pardon for making too many assumptions, and asks him to continue his work.
Arakasi slowly straightened. His eyes grew penetrating, disquietingly, uncomfortably direct. Through the sun’s glare, and the dusty scent of the flowers, he appeared to see through flesh and read her invisible spirit. ‘You are not like the other rulers in this Empire,’ he said, the velvet restored to his voice. ‘If I could dare to venture an opinion, I’d say you were quite dangerously different.’
After Arakasi withdraws to clean up (cough, to make himself pretty) before sharing his latest bulletin with Mara, her soldiers ask her how she determined the spy’s innocence.
Mara admits that if Arakasi really had turned against her, she has no doubt that the Acoma natami would already have been lost. They survive and thus, he is still on her side.
Later, when they meet privately, Arakasi swears to Mara that while he originally took service with her because of their shared hatred for Minwanabi, he now serves the Acoma because of Mara herself.
He adores her brain, and her bravery; her willingness to enact change in the face of society’s constraints. Arakasi is ambitious, and he wants to watch Mara’s ascent to power; not because he craves the power itself, but because watching her take it is going to be fascinating.
There are worse reasons to stick with a job that’s likely to kill you, I suppose.
Now to the news of the day: Arakasi has heard that ten Great Ones and an army of Kanzawai warriors went through the Rift, and there was a great battle. One rumour suggests that the Emperor made war against the King of Midkemia out of vengeance; but another more intriguing rumour suggests that the war was between the Great Ones and the Enemy, a mythical force from Tsurani fairy tales.
Arakasi has also heard that negotiations have opened for a prisoner exchange between the worlds. They discuss the possibility of Mara finally getting the benefit of her trade rights, but also—very obliquely—the possibility that Mara might be able to arrange for Kevin to go home.
Over at the Minwanabi estate, the five Acoma spies are found dead in the vegetable garden. No one is keen to inform Tasaio about this, so the servants take the information to Incomo in his bath.
Poor Incomo, can’t even have a bath with a sexy young slave girl in peace. How he suffers.
Incomo brings Tasaio to examine the bodies—five, when they only knew about three Acoma spies. That’s embarrassing. Tasaio is also furious that the Hamoi tong were responsible, as he uses them all the time. Indeed, the tong were allowed to waltz right on to the Minwanabi estate precisely because they have so often worked in Tasaio’s employ.
To add to his fury (it’s enragement day for Tasaio), Mara has now requested that he visit her for a meeting on the Acoma estate. Tasaio believes he has her running scared now, but Incomo warns that his uncle Jingu underestimated her, and Mara brought him down in his own house.
Tasaio is pretty sure that won’t happen to him. Nevertheless he insists that any meeting happens on his lands, not Mara’s.
As if today wasn’t angry-making enough, Tasaio then hauls in the Obajan (master) of the Hamoi Tong to demand the name of the person who hired them to wipe out those five “servants.”
To their shared shock, the Obajan tells him that the orders came directly from Tasaio himself, using his chop, and left in the same place as all of their correspondence.
Oh Arakasi, you classy cupcake.
We’re only a few chapters away from the big (middle) finish, and it’s all getting tense! Who says the middle book of a trilogy is nothing but padding? People who haven’t read this series, that’s who.
Watching Tasaio get furious and frustrated is highly entertaining as long as he’s not taking it out on his family and slaves. I particularly found his encounter with the Obajan interesting.
“I should own that tong!”
The Tongs are unusual in Tsurani society because they are independent of any House loyalty—like the Cho-ja (though this is still a secret to everyone but Mara) they are mercenary all the way. I was as surprised as Tasaio to realise that Arakasi hadn’t just hired Tasai’s favourite assassins, he set it up to look like Tasaio had hired them in the first place!
Arakasi is a beautiful starfish and no one can convince me otherwise.
The scene between Mara and Arakasi earlier in the chapter is deeply distressing—she assures him that she never lost faith but oh, she did start to wonder if he was truly loyal, and now she’s protecting him from that knowledge because he’s already an emotional wreck.
Poor Arakasi. Though I am aware it’s a bit hypocritical to be so relieved he’s still around when he just murdered eleven people for the sake of bureaucratic tidiness. So much for the Spy Pension Plan of House Acoma.
Mara continues to enjoy a more active sex life than almost any woman (or indeed, protagonist) in any epic fantasy series ever, which is kind of awesome. There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the internet (waves to Kate Elliott) about how rare it is to see consensual sexytimes on the page in epic fantasy, and while Feist and Wurts don’t often take us very far through the bedroom door, I appreciate the way that Mara and Kevin’s relationship and their intimate moments are used to tell us more about not only themselves as characters, but also how they react to stressful situations.
Aww, but it’s all coming to an end soon, I think? The writing is on the wall.
Another aspect of Mara’s sex life that I noted in this chapter was the discussion of contraception—it’s only briefly been touched on here and there with Nacoya’s original advice to her, but this chapter makes it clear that Mara has been actively preventing pregnancy all these years with Kevin… until now.
OMINOUS FERTILITY CHORD.
Contraception is one of those things that needs to be acknowledged any portrayal of sex in fiction, even if there is an absence of it—historically women have always found methods to prevent or ward off pregnancy to varying degrees of success or failure, and fantasy fiction which ignores that particular detail always annoys me. (Lemon juice on sponges, people! Or at least a bit of strategic counting of days of the month)
Potions are one of the simpler methods to employ in a fantasy context—though my favourite fictional is still the amulet used by Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s books. I was quite surprised in my brief foray into gaming that magical anti-pregnancy amulets weren’t like a standard fantasy world building trope. So convenient.
In historical fiction, I always thought that Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels dealt with contraception in a fascinating way, with committed central couple Falco and Helena attempting family planning over the course of something like 20 murder mystery novels, with varying results. Their most commonly used (authentic to the period) method involved the application of hot wax, the inconvenience of which provided great entertainment for the readers. Writers take note: perfect fictional sex is dull and doesn’t reveal nearly enough character—give me a pair of protagonists willing to combine sex with humour or sarcasm, and I will ship them until the end of time.
IN OTHER NEWS, that pesky Rift is open again. Can Mara trade Kevin for some magic beans? Tune in next week to see if it’s time for the exotic redhead from another world to pack his swag for home.
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!