Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts! This is another sad chapter of sadness.
Potential trigger warning: this one covers a traumatic childbirth event with a sad outcome. Take care of yourself accordingly.
Chapter 6: Gambits
SUMMARY: Chumaka has also been having a very frustrating two years, work-wise. He has had agents lying in wait for the Nameless Spy Master of the Tuscai (aka Arakasi) for years, hoping they would reopen the corner of the network that he knows about—but he has been outsmarted.
This time jump is messing with everyone’s heads.
Jiro of the Anasati holds a public court. Chumaka informs him that the main political priority at this stage is to do everything they can to weaken the Xacatecas support of the Acoma.
His current plan is for Jiro to ally himself with the Lord of the Matawa, who is rumoured to have a trading deal going with the Midkemian country of LaMut. Mara tied up a huge amount of trading concessions in her original deal (which gave her exclusive trading rights over certain goods to and from Midkemia), but there are certain items of trade she still has no influence over.
Chumaka believes that while Mara could potentially block Jiro from trading with LaMut, she can do nothing about it if he chooses to do so via an allegiance with the Lord of the Matawa who has several very ugly daughters and thus requires very rich dowries for them.
In the middle of all this civilised daughter-insulting and trade negotiation, Lord Dawan of the Tuscobar causes a scene by hurling himself into the court and raving about what Mara has done now.
Jiro takes him discreetly aside, only to discover that Lord Dawan’s entire fleet carrying the year’s harvest has been sunk, and Lord Dawan blames Mara. Apparently she’s also a witch. Amazing how often that happens with women in high positions of power.
When Lord Dawan calms down it turns out that the “witchcraft” was in fact written advice given to choose one port over another, followed by an unseasonable storm that caused the damage. Still, Dawan blames Mara and will do anything now to help Jiro in his plan to bring her down.
Jiro responds by making a ‘loan’ to Dawan to help his immediate financial difficulty, and waiving all interest in the name of cementing yet another ally against the Servant of the Empire.
Afterwards, Chumaka remarks to Jiro that he is surprised Mara chose to randomly strike at a fence-sitter like Lord Dawan. Jiro chuckles because the whole situation was set up by him—he spread rumours of where Mara’s grain was being sent this year, forged letters, the whole nine yards. Or as he likes to put it—borrowing Mara’s methods to use against her.
Chumaka is impressed with Jiro’s mighty brain, and the two of them radiate smugness about how well they work together. Machination Bros Forever!
Mara, meanwhile, is frustrated. She and Hokanu have never had a dispute they could not resolve, but he continues to dig his heels in over his attachment to Justin as the Shinzawai heir. It’s lovely and all that his own grief for Ayaki has increased the closeness he feels to their other son, but SO INCONVENIENT OMG.
As the baby kicks within her womb, Mara is pleased at the sign of his (she assumes another son) health. She is certain that when the baby is born in another month’s time, Hokanu will be overwhelmed by love and pride for the new son and relinquish his hold on Justin.
Surely then they can put this argument behind them, which is currently poisoning their relationship. While Mara has never shared the kind of love with Hokanu that she had with Kevin, she is used to her marriage being a union of joy and shared comradeship. Lately, everything has been very frosty and uncomfortable.
The baby, she is certain, will fix everything.
Jican announces a visiting trader, and he believes Mara will want to see this party’s wares for herself, though he is caught up in the question of appropriate etiquette because the trader is Tsurani, but now living as a Midkemian.
Mara does indeed meet the stranger, Janaio of LaMut. It becomes clear to her why Jican was so confused. The merchant is obviously of lowly Tsurani origin, but dresses himself as a lord in silk robes that mimic Tsurani style by way of Midkemian fashion.
He’s also wearing a gold chain (serious bling!) which surprises her. The casual use of metal among Midkemians has been causing all kinds of problems now that trading is up and running across the rifts—Lash Province’s economy was all but destroyed after an entourage of Midkemians returned home without their boots, which were full of iron nails. Now no one is allowed to bring any metal across to Tsuranuanni without pledging to return with the same amount.
Janaio, is is revealed, is trading in foodstuffs, and as this is the time of day when the Tsurani usually enjoy a cup of chocha, he suggests that Mara tries his own treats instead.
Mara calls for a food taster and for Saric and Lujan to join them. Jican warns her that this trader has also made overtures to the Matawa and that clinches it—if Mara can get one over on Jiro’s ally, she plans to do so.
With great ritual and formality, Janaio serves Mara with “tea” and then with “coffee.” He takes great pains to ensure that she feels secure in drinking, sharing each sample with her. His patter also includes a certain Midkemian brashness—which, as Saric notes, is likely deliberate because her kink for smartasses is widely known.
The third drink served is called “chocolate” and Mara enjoys it very much, finishing the whole cup while discussing possible trading deals with Janaio. It turns out that the deal with the Lord of the Matawa was insulting, and he is looking for a better offer.
But all is not what it seems! The trader calling himself Janaio leaves the Acoma estate for a dodgy warehouse in the city where his retinue are all discreetly assassinated. He uses grease to remove the makeup from his skin, revealing himself to be Kolos, one of the Hamoi tong. The Obajan of the Hamoi tong greets him and confirms that he delivered a slow-acting poison to Mara via the chocolate, and then supplies him with the antidote for what he drank himself.
Sadly for Janaio/Kolos, the “antidote” is actually just a fast-acting poison. The Obajan is cleaning house, and Mara has seen Kolos’ face so he is disposable. Just to ram home how ruthless the tong are, it turns out that Kolos is his son.
Oh and to add a certain flair to the proceedings, the Obajan leaves the chop of the Anasati visible before discreetly leaving the premises.
Mara’s stomach starts cramping during the night, and by breakfast time she has gone into full labour. Hokanu waits and worries, deliberately avoiding wine because he remembers his wife’s story of how Buntokapi got roaring drunk while she gave birth.
It becomes clear finally that Mara is not simply suffering a difficult labour. The baby is stillborn, and Mara continues to scream in agony. The healer informs Hokanu that his wife, too, is dying.
COMMENTARY: Well, that sucks. I knew this wasn’t going to go well once the shifty chocolate seller turned up, but I assumed the baby would make it because I was sure I remembered another Hokanu-Mara baby further down the line. Damn it all! I guess that doesn’t happen yet.
The Hamoi tong are still at it (going at it hammer and tong, HA), getting revenge on both the Anasati and the Acoma—and, presumably, planning to escalate the war that the Magicians forbade several years earlier.
Still, this is hardcore stuff, and the little detail of Janaio being the son of the Obajan but disposable (“I have many sons”) is brutal!
Scenes from Mara’s point of view are actually few and far between in this book compared to the previous volume—most of this chapter is shown through Chumaka or Hokanu’s eyes. I did enjoy the tasting scene, though, even though I knew it was a trap. I’ve missed Mara and her sneaky second-guessing business brain.
It’s now officially established that chocha is the Tsurani analog for coffee, but also that they serve their children a weaker, slightly milkier version called chocha-la which makes me worry for their children. Does it have caffeine in it? Why would you give your children COFFEE?
Ahem. We also have learned that Midkemian chocolate is made of hopes and dreams, and tastes much better than chocha or chocha-la. In case you were wondering. It’s a good thing that the assassin didn’t turn up with a packet of Tim Tams or he might have wiped out the whole household.
I also like that Mara mocks the bloke for calling his tea “tea” when “tea” is such a generic word that it means literally any hot drink in most places. However, it would be funnier if he hadn’t poisoned her and her unborn child.
Sigh. Why can no one in epic fantasy have nice things?
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!