Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts! Kevin fans, have tissue boxes at the ready, this one’s going to be a tearjerker.
Chapter 25: Confrontation
I swear, if I get a chapter title which is ‘Conflict’ I’m just going to go home. Why name chapters at all if you’re going to be super vague?
Someday I will write a book in which every chapter heading is either ‘Conflict,’ ‘Resolution,’ or ‘Ends on a Cliffhanger.’
SUMMARY: Mara enters the Holy City dressed as a Warchief, which means highly uncomfortable armour. Before you start getting too excited about Red Sonja style chainmail lingerie, or even a practical Xena-style outfit, it turns out she’s wearing exactly what the male Warchiefs of Clan Hadama have over the years, so she’s basically a large leather wardrobe on legs.
To add to the fashionable ensemble, Mara has brought an army with her. Elegant ladies always accessorise with a massive army at their back; it cuts down on catty remarks.
The crowd is cheering quite a lot. Turns out that while there aren’t a lot of female warriors in Tsurani history, the handful they did have were generally regarded as AWESOME.
Kevin has a theory that the people are smart enough to know that Mara is all that is standing between Tasaio of the Minwanabi and world domination the white and gold of the Warlord’s office, and Tasaio’s not exactly a friend to peasants.
Mara attends a meeting with Clan Hadama in which they gentle suggest taking the path of least resistance and allowing Tasaio’s inevitable rise to power. Mara smiles sweetly and lets them know that she has Plans for Tasaio, and they really don’t want to get into bed with him yet.
Afterwards, Saric (now Mara’s First Advisor in Nacoya’s place) notices that she is unwell and she conceals the true nature of her condition from him: she is certain that she is pregnant with Kevin’s child. This puts an urgent time limit on her plans for sending Kevin home, as she is certain he would never agree to leave if he knew she was carrying a baby.
Incomo and Tasaio gather to discuss the upcoming between Tasaio and Mara. Incomo is desperately worried that his master is underestimating what Mara is capable of, and is certain the there is more danger here than Tasaio expects. Tasaio is taking the whole thing lightly, with great confidence that he can out-strategise Mara with ease.
It’s pretty obvious which of these two men has been paying attention to the books so far.
They meet on a hillside outside the city walls, each with a substantial retinue. Tasaio begins with a little light threatening, and moves on to demanding why Mara requested the interview.
Mara suggests that Tasaio’s recent military operations could be seen as a planned assault against the Emperor. Tasaio calls her Clan Hadama army either a pot or a kettle.
He’s smug because he was the only claimant to the white and gold who got his act together in the wake of Axancutar’s unexpected fall—the others are still scrambling.
Mara decides this is an excellent time to tell him that she has enough allies to give one of the other claimants—Lord Frasai of the Tonmargu—a serious advantage against Tasaio. Even if the three other claimants pooled their votes, they could not beat him—but Mara has to votes to swing it either way.
Her problem with this is that the Emperor is obviously working on his own power play, and Lord Frasai is not strong or confident enough to be anything other than a puppet to the Light of Heaven. Indeed, the only Lord she believes would actually be able to stand up to the Emperor in his own Palace is… Tasaio himself.
Mara, I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I don’t like it.
She suggests to Tasaio that she could as easily put her votes behind him, enabling him to win the position of Warlord with no competition (and no bloodshed) at all, a smooth takeover for the best of the Empire. While Tasaio is still taking in the fact that she seems to be offering to fix in his favour an election he already thinks he will win, she waves for Arakasi to present Tasaio with a surprising human head in a bag.
Mara, I can’t even.
It’s a head. In a bag.
To be specific, it’s the head of the spy that Tasaio attempted to use to infiltrate Mara and Arakasi’s own network—and the sight of it reminds Tasaio how angry he is that they ordered murder within his own house.
But Mara has an offer for him, and finally clarifies why it is she sought this meeting. She wants Tasaio to agree to a cessation of hostilities between them, until the unstable Empire is back on her feet.
More importantly, she wants Tasaio to join her in a peaceful meeting with the Emperor, along with the other Ruling Lords, to plead for a return to the standard business of the Empire. In return, she will support his claim to the white and gold.
Mara is well aware that in making this offer, she is swallowing her own family pride and needs in service to the Empire itself—something she is sure she would not have been able to stomach without the influence of Kevin, who has always seen a bigger picture than the one her own upbringing allows.
The truce between them would last until Mara has returned to the Acoma estate, to put her affairs in order.
Tasaio is tempted to hurl her offer in her face, but he agrees. Once she has left, he exults in the fact that Mara came begging him for so little—he considers her as good as conquered already.
Incomo is less convinced—there is one detail that bothers him, and it is not the next Warlord, but who is to be the next Emperor. Ichindar has fathered no son, and that means he will likely need to adopt a candidate from one of the oldest families. Given how unpredictable Ichindar have proven to be over the last few months, this unknown factor is extremely alarming.
Tasaio is too busy doing his victory dance to give a damn about his First Advisor’s concerns.
Incomo decides to investigate Mara’s intentions more closely—but also figures that it’s time to put the finishing touches on his personal death poem and last testament, just in case everything goes to hell.
Oh Incomo, you incurable optimist, you.
Mara, meanwhile, returns to her townhouse to discover that an imperial messenger dropped in while she was out—and with great sympathy, Saric informs her that the Emperor Ichindar is buying up all Midkemian slaves. Rumour has it that he intends to present them as a gift to King Lyam—not freeing them himself, as that would be in defiance of the previous decree and insult the gods, but allowing them to return home.
Across the rift, of course, men cannot be slaves, so their freedom would be automatic.
While Mara has suspected something like this was coming for some time, she is devastated to discover how soon it is—i.e., tomorrow.
She collapses in tears, then pulls herself together and sends orders for Keyoke to send on all of the Midkemian slaves remaining on the estate—and, most importantly, that Kevin be escorted to the drop off point tomorrow without being forewarned about where he is going. If Mara knows anything about her man, it’s that he won’t necessarily go quietly.
Mara then goes to Kevin and spends a night with him in frantic lovemaking without ever telling him why she is so upset, and needs his particular brand of comfort. At dawn, she sends him away early before her morning sickness kicks in.
Kevin walks beside Mara’s litter for their outing that morning, confused as to why everyone is acting very mournful and strange. He only realises his personal danger when they approach the slave market—and to his horror, he is seized by Mara’s men.
‘Gods!’ Kevin exploded in a tone of blistering betrayal. ‘You’re selling me!’
Kevin fights Mara’s soldiers, and when Lujan tells him it is happening at the Emperor’s orders, he shouts some blasphemous things about the Emperor, drawing the attention of the crowd. In the end it is Lujan himself who takes Kevin down, forcing him to the cobbled streets and ordering the warriors to close in around them, to protect them from view of the gawkers.
‘Sorry, old son,’ Lujan murmured, his inflection and choice of phrase borrowed intact from Kevin. ‘You will finish your life in freedom and honour, whether you wish to or not.’
Kevin is bound and gagged, and handed over to the slave master. Mara refuses to take payment for him, making it clear she is gifting him to the Emperor. As she retreats into her litter, she hears her warriors warning the slave master to treat Kevin well.
After a terrible night of tormented, guilt-ridden dreams, Mara calls a meeting of her much reduced council of advisors about how to handle the upcoming meeting with the Emperor. She has promised Tasaio that she will ensure no other Lord sits upon the Warlord’s throne before he does. So…
As Saric now points out the only alternative is that they must ensure no Lord sits on the Warlord’s throne at all.
How are they going to do that, then?
Mara is, apparently, out of ideas.
COMMENTARY: Okay, so there are Kevin feels to talk through, but can we start off with the part where Mara has made this massive gamble in fixing a deal with Tasaio WITHOUT A PLAN?
I mean, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was assuming she wouldn’t give a voluntary pledge to support a Minwanabi claim to the throne of Warlord without a very good reason beyond ‘no more assassins please.’
Was she just assuming a brilliant idea of how to get out of this vow would come along later? I mean, sure, bizarre left-of-centre brilliant ideas are her specialty, but it’s a good idea to wait until you have one until you start giving away concessions to the enemy!
Ahem. It’s all going to be fine.
Poor old Kevin. I have come to like him a lot over the course of this book, despite him being an arrogant buttface when he first turned up (and, you know, being enslaved doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people).
This entire volume revolves around how Mara and Kevin change each other’s way of looking at the world—as most cross cultural relationships do, I suppose, and indeed most relationships generally. Mara often credits Kevin as the inspiration for her wilder changes in perspective and some of her maddest ideas, though it’s important to remember that she was coming up with crazycakes, culture-bending schemes long before he came into her life.
I’ve also very much enjoyed the way that a positive, mostly-happy sexual relationship has been used to progress plot and character so thoroughly.
While we have been given several chapters worth of preparation for the separation between the lovers, ever since Mara started mulling over ways to get Kevin home, what actually adds to the emotional power of this scene is Kevin’s other relationships—his friendship with Lujan, and the respect that the Acoma troops have for him.
It means, of course, that he is not only being betrayed by Mara for his own good, but by all of them.
Fantasy fiction so often explores the historical power that men have had over women, whether it be kings or fathers or husbands. Explorations of women wielding tangible power (as opposed to more ephemeral types of power, like having a quick wit, a pretty face or seductive hips) over men is far more rare, which is why the whole progression of this relationship through different levels of power imbalance has been so interesting to me on this reread.
I’ve been watching the CW series Reign, based (loosely!) on the teenage shenanigans of Mary Queen of Scots at the French court, and there are a lot of parallels in how the show depicts Mary using her power as a queen in a foreign court, and how Mara uses her own power as a Ruling Lady in Tsurani society.
Mary (in the show) is constantly making tough decisions on behalf of the men in her life, being far more fiercely pragmatic about issues to do with sex or romance than any of the men she is betrothed to (three so far, halfway through season one). Like Mara, she can’t afford to let love rule her head, though she indulges in it from time to time because boys, they are pretty.
I’m also reminded of the portrayal of Katniss in The Hunger Games, and how she is seen as stoic and almost inhuman because she always values survival over picking which of two hot boys she’s going to end up with.
Mara has made some incredibly difficult decisions here, on behalf of her partner of what, nearly a decade, at this point? I’ve lost track, but I’m pretty sure she and Kevin have been together for at least 8-9 years, going by Ayaki’s age and the regular time jumps. Concealing her pregnancy and forcing Kevin to go home rather than letting him choose between freedom and love is a harsh move, and it shows us how comfortable Mara has become in the position of Ruling Lady. It never occurs to her to let him make the decision for himself, because she thinks he would choose the path which feels emotionally right, but isn’t best for his longterm happiness.
It doesn’t matter whether Mara is correct or not, in keeping Kevin ignorant that he’s going to be a father. She felt she had to make the choice over him as his ruler (and, well, owner) as well as his lover, just as she makes life or death decisions over all of her servants, warriors and family members as well as her slaves. She’s come a long way since that scared girl was taken out of the temple of Lashima in Chapter One of Daughter of the Empire. It’s all about the big picture, not the small moments of personal happiness.
And she’s going to go a lot further, because now she has sacrificed love, Mara’s story is going to be far more about the acquisition of power for herself and her children.
Time to save the Empire. No pressure.
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!