Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts!
This week: Mara returns home in more ways than one, touching base with one of her most important peers and regaining her spirit. Also, courtesans are people too!
Chapter 15: Secrets
Summary: Tired, frustrated and worried about her future, Mara returns to the old Acoma estate to visit with the cho-ja queen. There was a time when the queen was her only peer and confidante, but until recently, Hokanu had taken that place in her life.
She’s pretty cranky at Hokanu right now, as well, thanks to his inability to accept Kasuma as the Shinzawai heir.
After holding in her emotional reactions for so long, her return to the one place where she always felt safe and protected sparks off something of an emotional breakdown.
Still, she bucks up long enough to take tea with the queen (because yes, despite the poisoning, Mara has totally cornered the market in tea, coffee and chocolate, that’s how badass she is). When Mara admits that she has come to the queen hoping to get her perspective and share her wisdom, the queen makes some surprising revelations about the cho-ja hive mind – a concept like ‘wisdom’ means little to them, because they share each other’s knowledge so thoroughly.
She also lets slip that the hive mind of the cho-ja includes accurate recollection of historical events going back past human recorded memory. So there’s that.
In trying to figure out the history of the cho-ja with humans, Mara learns that a treaty exists between them (which the cho-ja recall but humans almost certainly do not) and whenever she tries to get closer to that information, the queen shuts her down with the repeated phrase ‘it is forbidden.’
Overall, the queen’s main advice to Mara is to look beyond her own small world, both literally and metaphorically, citing their friendship as an example of how Mara has already been doing this to some extent her whole life.
But what other worlds are there? The queen opens up some interesting thoughts to Mara, such as—where in the cosmos is Kelewan, and where in the cosmos is Midkemia? Are they part of the same cosmos?
Mara’s mind is blown, but it doesn’t stop there. The queen also encourages her to ask and learn more about her own world – the countries and cultures that lie beyond the known boundaries of the Tsurani Empire, for instance.
Other topics that turn out to be forbidden are answers to the question of why Mara’s people don’t know of these other countries and cultures, and whether she could speak to cho-ja in those distance places.
She does, however, learn that she didn’t have to travel all this way—the cho-ja on her new estate could easily allow her to speak to the queen through them.
Also, when Mara asks, the queen reveals that she is trusting Mara with this information because she of all Tsurani has respected the cho-ja and treated them like people rather than unthinking animals. She considers Mara a friend and an important ally who may someday help the cho-ja escape the burden that lies heavy on their race.
Lujan, who has witnessed this whole conversation and even been permitted to ask a question of his own, is delighted to see that Mara, so emotionally weary and beaten down when she entered the hive, leaves it as her old political dynamo self, re-invigorated and ready to take on the world. Go Mara, go!
Settling herself into her old house with her children, Mara sets to work, summoning one of her silk factors to send a letter through to Midkemia, and busying herself with various tasks while she thinks through the ramifications of what she has learned from the cho-ja queen.
Surrounded by symbols of her childhood, including the living symbols of her family, the shatra birds, Mara is awash with nostalgia, missing her old nurse Nacoya and the family members she has lost. She worries about Hokanu, off dealing with a host of troublesome cousins as he cements his new role of Lord of the Shinzawai. He has taken no concubines that she is aware of, but also does not display enough interest in their children to ease her concerns that he is pulling away from their marriage, and family.
A not-entirely-unexpected visitor arrives, ragged from the road: Arakasi, with a certain young lady in tow. Kamlio the courtesan is angry, beautiful and highly skeptical about this mistress who has bought her contract (and, Arakasi has promised, her freedom).
Mara promises Kamlio her freedom—to serve the Acoma if she wishes to serve a family, to go her own way if she so chooses, with money to start a new life. She makes it very clear that Kamlio’s role here is not to be Arakasi’s reward for good service.
But what does Kamlio herself want?
‘Good Servant, great Lady, I’d prefer to be alone. I do not wish a pretty robe, but an ugly one. I do not want the eyes of men upon me. I want a sleeping mat and a room to myself.’
Once they are alone, Arakasi confesses to Mara his fear that Kamlio—quite rightly—cannot forgive him for his role in her sister’s death. But he did not just want her saved because he has squishy feelings for her. For the first time, he tells Mara about his family – his mother was a woman of the Reed Life who died young at the hands of an abusive client.
He is also very worried that this whole falling in love business has rendered him useless for his job. Mara chides him for that, insisting that love brings new perspectives and citing her own romantic disasters: her lost love for Kevin, and her more recently crumpled love for Hokanu.
Arakasi is sad to hear about the state of her marriage, as Mara and Hokanu’s relationship is basically his model for how this love thing is supposed to work. He admits he had been hoping it would be the same for Kamlio, but Mara pushes him to let Kamlio the hell alone for a while.
She has a new job for him: to comb the Imperial Archives for information about the cho-ja’s history with the Tsurani Empire, and this mysterious treaty of which they are forbidden to speak.
Mara, meanwhile, is going on a long journey, to the lands of the Thuril (the only known people beyond the Tsurani Empire) and perhaps beyond that, to visit the other races of which the cho-ja queen spoke. She must seek her answers far from here, and well away from the Assembly of the Magicians.
Arakasi asks her to take Kamlio along for the ride, because he is fretting that he was not able to be discreet enough in purchasing her freedom, and that the Tong might seek further revenge – Mara already had that plan in mind.
She’s pretty sure that the whole Tsurani religious system and concept of honour has been falsely imposed upon them all to keep them under control, just as the cho-ja have been shackled by humans, and she’s about ready to blow the Empire up to make sure that worthy people like Arakasi and Kamlio have a chance at a better life than the one they have been born into.
Arakasi basically thinks she’s adorable, and will support her in her blasphemous plot because, well, she’s Mara and he totally wants to see what she’ll do next.
They part as respected friends and colleagues, with a new quest ahead of them – and Mara promises that when this impossible business with the Magicians is over, if they are not dead, she will find Arakasi a new post in which to serve. Something a little more compatible with the possibility of love and happiness.
Commentary: Yes, Bechdel Test Skeptics of the World, when women get together to have private tea parties, this is the kind of stuff we often talk about: politics, history, philosophy and hardcore astronomy.
I love the queen’s sudden cosmological bent, and the small reminder that they are speaking a language other than ours (and that the cho-ja queen is translating from her first tongue): Mara has never heard the word ‘cosmos’ before which to her translates as something like ‘star field’ or ‘arch of the sky’ but she’s pretty sure she’s not getting the concept behind those words.
I am a complete geek for linguistics in fantasy and SF, so little language-building (as a form of worldbuilding) snippets like this make me very happy.
This whole chapter was delightful, packed from end to end with Mara’s devious political brain, her determination to embark on a class war along with breaking the glass ceiling into a million pieces, and even a little romantic advice to be given.
My favourite relationships with Mara are basically her friendships with the cho-ja Queen, with Lujan and with Arakasi, so this may well be my favourite chapter of all time.
It’s also good to see that the narrative of these books is finally addressing the whole courtesan business – up until now, prostitution and sex slavery in Tsurani culture have been either taken for granted or used to show how gross men in this society can be (Buntokapi) or in cases like Teani, used as a reason for a woman to go completely off the rails crazysauce. Not to mention the regular use of such women as ‘damp silk’ sexy wallpaper.
Mara herself has often been complicit in this treatment of other women as rewards and distractions to use against men. Here, though, she shows great empathy towards Kamlio and not only gives her freedom, but allows her a broad choice of which that freedom will consist. In particular, I appreciate the fact that she stands between Kamlio and Arakasi, making it clear that no one expects Kamlio to reward him with anything – not her love, not her body, not her gratitude, not her forgiveness.
Of course, Mara is totally doing this because she’s shipping these two like mad, and playing the long game as far as Arakasi’s courtship of Kamlio goes, but she’s respecting Kamlio’s autonomy pretty hard at the same time.
Arakasi’s own story of his mother adds to the de-romanticisation of the women of the Reed Life, even if it is largely about his manpain. I like that we do get more of a sense here for why he empathises with Kamlio as a person rather than just as a sexy lady he wants to kiss, even if ‘she reminds me of my mother’ isn’t the most romantic phrase in the world.
He is also respecting Kamlio’s autonomy, and I liked that we saw his struggle in laying aside his paternalism and protectiveness of her – yes, he’s asking Mara to protect Kamlio on his own behalf (the Acoma is my life, but she is my heart), but it’s quite a big deal that he is willing to accept that he can’t be the one to personally protect Kamlio from the bad guys – and that, let’s face it, that would be an excuse to stay close to her, when he needs to give her So Much Space Right Now.
Oh and also? Mara’s scene of Doing Business while Managing Children was amazing. She is the epitome of the working mother – yes she has nursemaids etc, she’s pretty damned privileged, but she’s also juggling the needs of a newborn baby and her older son and making sure they get her attention as well as getting her vital work done, which is such an empowering thing to see in fantasy fiction. More of this in all the books, please.
Hokanu, meanwhile, is off doing his business and family stuff, completely unfettered by domestic concerns or the need to nurture his children, even to the point of barely mentioning the baby in his letter to Mara. Gender issues around working parents ahoy!
How many fantasy novels address the fact that it’s a hell of a lot easier for men to do their jobs because they aren’t expected to deal with domestic issues at the same time, but women can still totally save the world while parenting?
Well, save the world, destroy the world… whatever it is that Mara’s up to right now, her multitasking skills are epic.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy’s latest piece of fiction is “Fake Geek Girl,” a novelette at the Australian Review of Fiction, and she also writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter, sign up for her Author Newsletter, or listen to her on Galactic Suburbia!