Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
The theme for this week is: abject humiliation.
Chapter 19: Captive
SUMMARY: Mara and her party have been captured by Thuril highlanders, who are basically treating them in much the same way that the Tsurani treat their slaves. It’s an eye-opener.
The Acoma warriors are particularly upset that Mara is forced to walk among them across the difficult, slippery terrain, while Kamlio—younger and more beautiful, seen as the greater prize—is allowed to ride the donkey. Mara, for all her personal suffering, is well aware that Kamlio’s position of status as favourite prisoner is something terrifying rather than reassuring to the other woman.
As their harsh journey continues, Mara laments her own arrogance in assuming she could stride into unknown territory and make alliances by sheer force of personality. She also grieves that the issues with her marriage and the Shinzawai-Acoma heirs may be left here, unresolved, if she dies in these territories.
As they stop for the evening, their captors humiliate Iayapa, the herdsmen who has been helping Mara as her native guide, by making ribald sexual jokes about Mara and about him being a Man Who Answers To Women. He refuses at first to translate the insults, but Mara insists and he does so with great embarrassment.
Once she knows what they have been saying about her, she lets fly with a tirade at their captor, insulting his masculinity with a high level of precision detail (and making it clear that she knows he understands at least something of her language). The tribesmen all fall about with laughter, and compliment Mara on being able to insult as well as a man—turns out to be a highly regarded skill among Thuril culture.
As they continue on the last part of their march, Mara learns that the land is still fortified from the last battles between the Thuril and her own people after a Tsurani invasion. Which somewhat explains their anger at her intrusion.
The Tsurani captives are led past the fortifications into the town of the highlanders, and Mara takes some comfort from the fact that they are being allowed to walk among the Thuril women and children, which suggests they aren’t thought of as being highly dangerous.
When they are brought to a halt, Mara berates her captors for not providing the basics for prisoners of war: food, shelter, and so on. They continue to be ignored until the chieftain arrives, a very elderly man who is horrified and disgusted to discover that Mara is considered the leader of this group, and that she holds a position of high status in her own country.
Sadly, her skills of insults don’t count for much here, and Mara is finally informed that the chieftain will not condescend to negotiate with her her, but given the treaty between this land and Tsuranuanni, he also can’t hand her over to his men as a sexual prize (um, yay?). All of Mara’s party will be taken on to the high chief at Darabaldi for final judgement, and in the meantime they will sleep in an animal pen except for Kamlio who is being valued for her potential as a future wife.
In the middle of a very uncomfortable night, a woman (who turns out to be the chief’s wife) comes to free Mara and take her to the unmarried women’s quarters—Mara at first refuses unless her men will also be sheltered, but then she is told that Kamlio is in great distress, and goes to help her.
Among the women, Mara gets a better perspective of what is going on around here.
She also gets the chance to exchange some girl talk with Kamlio—terrified by the possibility of being married off to a Thuril, Kamlio is finally starting to think about what she does want from life, and Arakasi is not looking too bad from this angle. Mara puts in an extra matchmaking nudge by telling Kamlio about Arakasi’s family history and why he might be particularly concerned with her fate (apart from his obvious desire for her).
Mara promises Kamlio that she will not leave her—or anyone—behind in this territory, and it’s clear that Kamlio isn’t entirely reassured.
The next morning, Mara is reunited with her men—who have at least had the animal dung sluiced off them—and they set off for Darabaldi.
Mara notices that her men draw greater respect from the Thrills today, and Lujan quietly tells her how they talked the Thuril into letting them wash in the river, and were hailed with insults to their honour and sexuality as they did so. In particular, the suggestions that their battle scars were all caused by the fingernails of prostitutes were particularly galling for the honour-obsessed Tsurani men, but they remained stoic and remembered the example of Papewaio who endured the black rag of humiliation to serve his mistress.
When asked why they did not defend themselves, they all replied that their honour belonged to Mara, not to themselves, and this at least silenced their captors.
Mara commends her men for their restraint.
COMMENTARY: The narrative tells us that being driven along in the mud like a slave, Mara realises for the first time how bad it must have been for Kevin and his countrymen. REALLY, MARA? All that time with Kevin, loving him as a fellow person, is this seriously the first time you thought about this stuff?
I mean, I do understand that there’s a difference between lived experience and imagined experience, but her inner thoughts are telling us she never once imagined what it must have been like for Kevin on the day she bought he and his countrymen and drove them before her like cattle.
Oh, Mara. Still got some growing to do as a person, I see.
And I get to be outraged all over again that Mara still does not know that she can’t have any more babies—because she’s overwhelmed with distress that Hokanu will have to turn to some other woman to produce the male heir he longs for.
Hokanu, I’ve said it before, but you made a terrible life choice on this one. Major loss of husbanding brownie points, right there.
Her time as a captive is interesting because we have Mara back at square one as far as dealing with institutionalised sexism is concerned—actually far back beyond square one, because her privilege as a high-born daughter of the Acoma has always protected her somewhat from the worst treatment of women in Tsuranuanni. She has grown in rank and status over the last many years, and is basically sacrosanct to all except the Great Ones back home, and so to see her having to apply her wits to a situation without her usual resources is fascinating.
One of the things I like most about the depiction of the Thuril (who have more than a hint of the Scots and the Vikings about them, or at least the stereotyped elements of those historical cultures) is that we are set up to see them as very one-note to start with, then are shown deeper layers of their society. At first, we are faced with a society that is so overtly misogynist that even the Tsurani (who aren’t exactly Friends of the Pankhursts) are appalled at their awfulness and disrespect.
But then, Mara goes among the women, and we get to see that what looked terrible at first glance (the tradition of men stealing wives, for example) is something that the women of that culture don’t see as a problem at all (“Would you marry a man who had not proved himself a warrior?” asks the chief’s wife).
I love that we are shown the society through the eyes of its women as well as its warriors, which immediately gives a richer and more balanced picture of what life for the highlanders is like. Mara learns very quickly that you shouldn’t judge a foreign culture by your own standards, or based on surface appearances. (Which is something she really should have seen coming, considering her recent revelations about the cho-ja.)
Then in the same scene we have a really odd bit where Mara goes all male gaze-y at Kamlio, noting how hot she is and how it’s unsurprising why Arakasi desires her so much. We’ve established that she’s pretty, do we really need Mara checking her out on behalf of female-attracted viewers on a regular basis?
That is, however, a rare off note in a very thoughtful and important chapter. It’s significant that the men and women of the party both experience sexual humiliation at the hands of their captors. It’s realistic and provides narrative balance that makes me feel slightly less icky at having to watch Kamlio’s agonies; it also isn’t something we often see in fantasy fiction. I appreciate that the suffering of the men wasn’t only expressed through a) physical privation and b) having to endure the sexual insults and threats offered to the women of their party.
The scene by the river, and even the fact that we see it reported to Mara via Lujan rather than through his eyes (and we have had scenes in his direct POV before) all contributes to the power of the idea that Mara’s men are willing to suffer extreme humiliation and what others in their culture would consider unbearable dishonour, because they trust her to keep them safe. They also trust her not to use this perception of dishonour or emasculation against them (as, let’s face it, a master like Tasaio would have done in a heartbeat). Allowing themselves to be captured at all rather than fight to the death is a huge deal for Tsurani; that they did not respond to the jeers and taunts about their bodies is a genuinely interesting insight into how Mara has made huge numbers of men of her own culture think differently about what honour actually means.
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!