Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
This week, we get a slashing, snikting, no holds barred duel to the death. Lujan undergoes trial by combat against a cho-ja warrior, this being his preferred manner of execution. No, not Lujan! Noooo….
Chapter 23: Contest
SUMMARY: After a quiet night of wakeful contemplation, Mara and Lujan are dragged out of their cell.
Watching her Force Commander prepare himself for his trial by combat, Mara is reminded of the grim ritual suicide of her first husband, and she can find no solace in the chosen method of Lujan’s death. When the cho-ja declare that none of them know what to do with Lujan’s ritual armour, Mara steps forward to help him.
This is the gesture of a treasured family member, such as the brother and father whom she used to assist with their armour, before they rode off to war.
The fight begins. Lujan is well aware that he is outnumbered and outclassed; no human could expect to beat a cho-ja warrior. As the duel continues, however, he realises that he has an unexpected advantage here—these cho-ja have never actually fought humans before. Their race memory knows enough to fight a duel in the old style, but has not kept up with modern innovations.
Even better, when Lujan switches to Midkemian fencing techniques learned from Kevin (ah, did you think we were going to have a chapter that didn’t mention Kevin? No fear!), his opponent is completely baffled.
At one point, Lujan has a chance to land a killing blow, albeit one which will leave his opponent a chance to kill him in return. This should be a win-win scenario for him, taking a fellow warrior with him in his honourable death, but at the last minute he holds back, knowing that he no longer values his honour above life.
Badly wounded and bleeding from the head, he manages to shout out a short speech about how he will not dishonour his mistress Mara by taking cho-ja lives when her only intention was to come among them in friendship.
He deliberately turns his back, close enough to the magical circle around their duelling space that the cho-ja’s only possible way of killing him is with a coward’s blow from behind.
The cho-ja spins his bladed forearm around, and halts it a fraction from Lujan’s neck before demanding to know what’s going on here—why would a Tsurani warrior deliberately throw away his society’s notion of honour in his moment of death?
Shivering now in the aftermath of nerves and adrenalin, Lujan managed a steady answer. “What is tradition but habit?” He shrugged stiffly, feeling the sting of his wounds. “Habits can be changed. And as any Tsurani will confirm, there is no honor in killing an ally.”
He then faints, which takes further decisions out of his hands.
Later, awaking on the swooning couch, Lujan finds a cho-ja healer tending to his wounds. Mara is there, and excitedly tells him that he has saved the day—his actions proved that Tsurani could change and evolve beyond their rigid honour system, something the cho-ja would never have otherwise believed.
Not only are they to go free, but the cho-ja of Chakaha have agreed to the alliance that Mara hoped for. She and Lujan are to be given safe passage back to their people in Thuril, and accompanied back to the Tsurani Empire by two cho-ja mages, in the hope that they can effect the liberation of the Tsurani cho-ja.
Nice one, Lujan!
COMMENTARY: It has never been more explicit before that Mara is now completely separated from the belief system she grew up with. She no longer doubts or questions the Tsurani value of honour above all else; she has lost faith in it entirely and knows that it is a wrong, wasteful way to view to the world.
As we see here, Lujan feels exactly the same way.
Lujan’s journey has been an integral part of Mara’s story since the very beginning—he was the first of the Grey Warriors that she redeemed, and has often stood as a symbol for the old life she lost (his cheeky personality reminding her of her dead brother) as well as for the new kind of House Acoma she is building.
Having witnessed most of Mara’s experiences along the way, it’s hardly surprising that he shares so many of her revolutionary philosophies. Like Mara, Lujan was deeply affected by the actions of Papewaio who faced dishonour every day to serve his mistress, and the ideas of Kevin who challenged every preconception about honour that the Tsurani held dear.
But Lujan is also a tool of Mara—the person he is now has been shaped by her journey, her choices and her ways of thinking. Another man, having lost and regained a chance to serve a Family with honour, might have become extra conservative in his beliefs, knowing how bad it was to lose everything. Instead, Lujan has opened his mind to the possibility of change, and improving their society, not because Mara told him he must, but because he follows where she leads. He agrees with her.
The duel, then, is Mara’s victory as much as Lujan’s—even when fighting for his life, he was thinking about what she would want, and how he could best serve her needs. His belief in her has won the day, quite literally.
While we’re talking about serious stuff, can I just say, the fight scenes in these books are brilliant! I’m definitely that reader who used to zone out of battle scenes, but Wurts and Feist have a wonderful way of imbuing the tense action with important character notes and feelings.
On a recent episode of Rocket Talk, I heard the theory that fight scenes, like sex scenes, should only be in the story if they further the plot. No, no, no, that’s not true at all. They should further the plot OR develop character, and the best fight scenes (as with the best sex scenes) do both.
This one, with its whirling limbs and dribbling blood, is an intense, visceral scene, which builds on both Lujan and Mara’s character journeys in a highly climactic way, plus pushing the plot along at the same time.
Now, let’s go home to the Empire and kick some butt!
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” at the Australian Review of Fiction. She 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!