Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts! This Arasaki chapter actually gets us out of the usual domestic setting and into the spy field.
Chapter 4: Adversity
Summary: Once again, a chapter heading which could be used for any other chapter in this saga. But would we want anything less at this point? I think not.
Trapped and cornered while doing espionage things in a fabric warehouse in Ontoset, Arakasi discovers that he is being tracked by an expert team.
In his attempt to lie low, Arakasi stays too long in the warehouse and ends up having to go undercover as one of the fabric workers. Still, he is not safe, and his network has been too badly compromised for him to risk going to his own people for help.
He is going to have to think up some sneaky way to get out of this city and home to Mara.
Elsewhere, Lord Jiro of the Anasasi is measured for a silk robe fitting. He bullies the tailor who is only trying to dress him beautifully. He’s self-conscious about whether he’s hot enough because of that one time Mara ditched him to marry his brother YES REALLY.
Does anyone else want to sit him down and patiently explain that she did so for political reasons?
First Advisor Chumaka lures him away from the tailor to share some exciting news: In their attempts to figure out what the hell ever happened to the Tuscai spy network after the destruction of that House, his men identified a high-up member of said network and then lost him.
Okay, it doesn’t sound like a wonderful achievement, especially to Jiro, but Chumaka explains that this is further proof about his ongoing suspicions that the spy network continues to be active, and that they are working for Mara.
Meanwhile, the whole arm of the network in Ontoset has been closed down, which Chumaka considers an excellent day’s work.
Chumaka has heart-eyes as he explains how awesome his opponent—the secret boss of the spy network—is and how amazing it’s going to be to vanquish him. He also adds—though he thought Jiro should have been able to figure it out from context—that the dead servants found in the Minwanabi household that time now turn out to be former members of House Tuscai. If they were indeed—as he now suspects, and he has a strong faith in his own brilliance—Acoma agents, then it is this act (which was done by forging Tasaio’s chop and tricking the tong into assassinating the agents) that would have enraged the Obajan of the Hamoi Tong, and set him against Mara and House Acoma.
It’s all very complicatedm but I’m glad that Chumaka is enjoying himself so much.
What Jiro takes from this is that now the Hamoi Tong have used House Anasati’s reputation to damage Mara, and he wants his revenge on all of them. Chumaka has to talk quickly to calm him down and convince him that they need to employ subtlety here.
Because, when it comes down to it, Chumaka is not going to let anyone get in the way of his deliciously enjoyable battle of wits against the nameless Spy Master. He’s all but skipping at the thought of it.
I want him and Arakasi to get to meet each other and have tea parties together.
Jiro doesn’t care as long as he gets vengeance on Mara. Hell hath no fury like some dude who wasn’t picked to be married and murdered by a girl he once sort of fancied.
Back at the Acoma estate, Lujan and Keyoke catch an intruder near Justin’s nursery, who turns out to be Arakasi. He’s had such a rough day that, for once, he was actually conquered by their “deliberately unpredictable” security patrols.
Arakasi is grumpy about this, and the other two are just smug.
When Lujan sees the state that Arakasi is in—not only filthy, but suffering infected sores thanks to splinters he did not have time to remove—he offers him a bath, and promises to borrow a precious metal needle from a seamstress who is fond of him.
The idea is to make Arakasi a bit more respectable for when he meets with Mara. But after the bath, Lujan realises that Arakasi has already “dirtied her cushions” AKA given their mistress his report. Because he has no sense of self-preservation, for a master spy.
The second meeting includes Lujan, Keyoke, Hokanu, and snacks as well as Mara, which has to be an improvement. Also, Arakasi smells better this time around.
He is, however, freaking out completely about the mysterious enemy who has cottoned on to an aspect of his network’s communication system, and has been placing watchers to catch someone high-up in the network. His status as Spy Master is extremely vulnerable.
Mara’s solution is to take him out of the role altogether, temporarily, on the grounds that he is essential to her operation and she doesn’t want to risk him—she has another job for him instead. (And she would rather lose whomever he replaces himself with than him, which does not make Arakasi feel better at all.)
She wants him to find out everything she can about the Great Ones—the Assembly of Magicians.
It is clear now that Mara is well aware that Jiro of the Anasati was probably not responsible for Ayaki’s death—but for the sake of honour and politics, she must still behave as if she believes he was.
Mara’s concern is that with the edict of the Magicians against the Acoma and Anasati going to war together, she cannot properly protect the various minor houses that count on her, and thus they are likely to be lost within two years.
Arakasi agrees to the mission, knowing that it is of extreme danger to all of them. Should his mistress be discovered trying to unravel the secrets of the City of Magicians, they will not hesitate to wipe her out.
It’s an Arakasi chapter!
Up until now, the Empire trilogy has mostly done the Downton Abbey thing of staying very close to the homes of the main characters. Apart from that one desert war (and even then we spent a lot of time in tents), the settings have been very urban and domestic. This is especially true of Mara and the other members of House Acoma.
So getting to see Arakasi actively working in the field, instead of turning up dressed like a cabbage seller to report on all the interesting things he’s been doing and finding out off-camera, is rather exciting.
Have we even had an Arakasi POV scene before now? It’s interesting how little we have had from Mara’s POV in this book thus far, seeing her mostly through the eyes of the men in her life (because let’s face it, there are almost no women in her life) such as Hokanu and Lujan.
I’m glad about this particular stylistic choice for the early chapters because I prefer the emotional separation from Mara’s immediate grief for her son, but we’re past that now, and I’m ready to see the world through her eyes again.
Speaking of which, it’s something of a relief to have the old Mara back, with that political brain of hers firing all over again. Her vengeful thoughts are a lot more targeted and intelligible than in her first wave of righteous fury, and she’s back in the game.
But the game seems to be changing…
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. She is also the co-editor of Cranky Ladies of History (Fablecroft). Come and find her on Twitter!