Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
This week: Held prisoner in Chakaha, cho-ja city of magic, Mara and her trusty stalwart warrior Lujan are condemned to death. Fun times!
Chapter 22: Challenge
SUMMARY: Lujan is quite despairing of their situation, and feels inadequate to the task of keeping his lady safe—convinced that Saric or Arakasi would be more useful.
Before the lack of toilet facilities becomes an embarrassing issue, Mara and Lujan are transported magically to a beautiful purple dome, and while Mara is distracted by a gorgeous glass mosaic, Lujan is whisked away to parts unknown.
Alone, surrounded by exquisite art and architecture, Mara finally faces the cho-ja magicians. She attempts to plead her case, having come up with what she thinks is a hopeful angle—that her political rise in Tsuranuanni is better for the cho-ja living in servitude in her land than anyone else coming to power.
Her argument, however, goes unheard as she is informed that she has already been tried and convicted on behalf of her own ancestors, for their past crimes against the cho-ja.
As is their custom, they will allow her to speak a testimony sharing her wisdom with her own people, which will be sent back to her home.
Furious and frustrated with the situation, Mara makes the following speech:
“I have no great legacy of wisdom,” she announced in a bold voice. “Instead of giving knowledge, I would ask: in my birth-lands, there is a treaty that holds the cho-ja nation captive. In my land, to speak of it or to impart knowledge of the war that gave rise to its making is forbidden. If the memory of this great battle and the terms of its peacemaking are recalled in Chakaha, I wish to be told of these events. I would ask to know the truth of the past that has condemned me.”
This stirs up the cho-ja magicians, who are startled to learn that the Tsurani have no knowledge of the deeds of their ancestors—they are impatient when Mara tries to explain that her people have no hive mind, as that is obvious, but they kind of assumed that the Tsurani had stayed on top of their past with that whole writing-down technology they have going on.
The cho-ja accede to Mara’s request, and she spends her last day on earth listening to their orators describe in great detail the horrible and violent acts perpetrated on the cho-ja by Tsurani humans. She also learns the harsh conditions of the peace treaty agreed to under sufferance, as to how the cho-ja in Tsuranuanni are to conduct themselves, and what is forbidden.
Magic and the floating cities are the greatest losses to the Tsurani cho-ja, leaving them only to live in the ground with black carapaces instead of the more colourful markings that speak of age, rank and experience.
Once the presentation is complete, she is informed that she will be executed in the morning, and invited to make a last bequest. Furious, Mara demands that they take the crystal given to her by Gittania (containing her testimony) and incorporate it into their hive mind so that all future cho-ja will know and be forced to acknowledge that the Tsurani are not the only people responsible for great and terrible injustices.
This way, her heart’s intention will be preserved by her murderers.
The cho-ja are offended by this, but accept her crystal and send her back to the cell, where she is reunited with Lujan. He informs her that as his own final bequest, he asked for the right to die in honourable single combat, as is appropriate for a warrior condemned by the state for the crimes of his master.
Sadly, Lujan admits that once a warrior’s death would have seemed like a good end to his life, but thanks to Kevin’s viral philosophies, he can’t see it as anything but a waste. Mara’s own regrets are those of a wife—she wanted so much to repair things with Hokanu and repair the cracks in her family, but now it is too late.
She admits now that she was unfair in not looking closer at why Hokanu behaved as he did towards her daughter, condemning him without testimony, just as the cho-ja are doing to her.
Lujan, only just realising the true cause of the rift between Mara and her husband, and knowing they are about to die, breaks the confidence of Hokanu and tells her the truth: that she can bear no more children, and Hokanu was mourning the loss of all future sons in the birth of Kasuma.
Mara is shocked and upset, but grateful to understand why Hokanu reacted as he did. Lujan admits that his greatest regret truly is that he never settled down to start a family, too busy idolising his Mistress to allow any single woman to capture his heart.
COMMENTARY: Okay, this isn’t a funny chapter by any means—it’s very serious and important—but I still cracked up when Lujan commented on the lack of a latrine in the prison cell, largely because this has been a running joke for my group of friends who watch The Flash together. Barry Allen and his friends are supposed to be ‘the good guys’ but they keep illegally imprisoning various superhuman criminals in cells beneath their lab, without toilet facilities. And indeed without food, guards, beds or any other things that an actual prison should really involve. (they never acknowledge this in the context of the show but once you see it, you can’t unsee it)
Seriously, that’s how you turn mild antagonists into full out supervillains.
But I digress, and now I’m wondering what a cho-ja toilet would even look like. Maybe there is one there and Lujan can’t even recognise it. I bet the cho-ja excrete waste elegantly, like they do everything else. Maybe it emerges as dazzling jewels, or gold microchips or something.
I do appreciate that bodily needs are acknowledged here, something that tends to happen more often with male than female protagonists in fantasy fiction. We might not have seen how Mara deals with menstruation (though thanks to her pregnancies we have had occasional acknowledgement of her uterus) but there’s something quite human and affecting about seeing how hard it for our main POV character to think on her feet and be clever while being distracted by an urgent need to pee.
This is a wonderfully emotional chapter, not only because Mara gets to be rage-filled at the situation she is in, but also because of the conversations she shares with Lujan, who has been the brother of her heart for most of this trilogy. Theirs is a closeness that has only built over the eyars, and one of the great fictional friendships of the genre.
Lujan’s relationship with Mara has always been platonic (if a little flirty) but adoring, and he admits here that his worshipful attitude towards her prevented him from forming solid romantic relationships.
He also notes that it’s hard for other women to stack up to her—the truth is that in their society, women of his social station are not allowed to be as strong as Mara. She has the privilege to act as the equal and in many cases superior to any man—but any woman Lujan would be legally allowed to marry would only be able to express her strength in far more low key ways. No wonder he hasn’t been able to find a wife!
I quite like that he puts it in her hands, requesting that she orders him to marry if they survive this, because if he can’t marry Mara (and let’s face it, he doesn’t actually want to marry Mara) he might as well take choice out of the situation and let her pick a wife for him.
The really splendid thing about the Mara/Lujan relationship, which is to some extent also reflected in her relationship with Arakasi, and the professional friendships she has with many of the men in her employ, from Saric to Keyoke, is that she is not only his mistress and boss—she is his hero.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how rare it is in fiction and pop culture for men and boys to be allowed to acknowledge women as their heroes. My godson (at seven and a half) still thinks Wonder Woman is the best superhero of all time, and we’ve been half-dreading this to be socialised out of him for years now, because of the extreme focus on Boy Heroes and Boy Toys for Boys in the world he lives in. Luckily he’s exceptionally stubborn and has dug his heels in.
Part of the reason I’m fascinated (and a bit terrified) to see how Wonder Woman is going to be presented in movies over the next few years is because so many writers of the comics, TV series etc. over the decades have struggled with her role as a fully independent female superhero—and in particular, struggled with her love interest Steve Trevor as a “problem” character because the idea of a man as a support character to a heroic woman’s story can be perceived as threatening, counter-intuitive, or generally “wrong”.
What’s special about Mara of the Acoma is that so many of the men around her are exceptional in their various specialities and fields, still and look up to her as their superior. They respect her, not because she is their mistress, but because she’s extremely good at her job.
These days in epic fantasy I expect far more of female characters—for a start, I’m going to be more interested in picking up a series if it contains a multitude of diverse, interesting female characters instead of one exceptional woman surrounded by men—and I will admit that a stronger female supporting cast would have made me think far more kindly of the Empire trilogy even now.
But there is such power in Mara as an iconic character, the strength she takes from the men around her, and the value they put on her as their leader, not because she needed to prove herself, but because she has proven herself over and over again.
I’m hanging out for more Arakasi-Mara scenes now, but these Lujan scenes are just wonderful, and far more interesting to me than either of their love lives. More male-female friendship scenes in fantasy forever and ever, please!
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy recently completed a serialised novel, Musketeer Space, available to read for free on her blog, and her latest piece of published short fiction is “Fake Geek Girl,” a novelette at the Australian Review of Fiction. She also writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter or Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, or listen to her on Galactic Suburbia!