Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
This one pretends to be about extreme war tactics and behind the scenes politics, but really it’s about how everyone really wants Arakasi and Kamlio to hook up and make beautiful spy babies together.
SUMMARY: Mara is totally at war.
The Acoma and the Anasati have been fighting in short, hidden bursts rather than openly on the plain. So far, they have failed to be turned into pillars of salt by outraged magicians.
But come on, it’s only a matter of time.
As Kamlio helps Mara remove her armour, Lujan drops in to update her on the day’s skirmishes. It is highly frustrating, trying to counter Jiro’s longterm military plots while still keeping it all discreet and small scale.
Mara longs to march on Kentosani, knowing that her children are in such a precarious position within the Imperial household, but she dare not go that far out on the limb yet. Lujan is just as frustrated–if they could get on with all the battles without worrying about the wrath of the (so far suspiciously absent) magicians, it would be so much easier.
As they consider the highly dishonourable possibility of stealing the other side’s armour and banners to stage a fake attack, Arakasi makes his entrance.
TENSION ALERT! This is the first time Kamlio and Arakasi have been in the same room together since Mara left for her grand quest. Kamlio drops a pot of water, she’s so stressed, and Arakasi is trying desperately to stick to business and not pay any attention to her at all.
Okay, I know I’ve spent half this book parsing how problematic their relationship is, but this is hella adorable and I don’t care who knows it. Also, the whole way through this scene, you just know Lujan and Mara are thinking ‘now kiss!’
Ahem, let’s make like Arakasi and keep this work-related for a little longer.
Since he hasn’t seen Mara since long before the Emperor’s assassination, the Spymaster has much to report. The Inrodaka and other vassals were indeed working for Jiro, and his siege engines are currently on the move towards Kentosani.
They discuss which of Jiro’s allies they are allowed to fight (mostly ones who aren’t using Anasati forces), and whether they can slow him down at all. He is using forces from Neshka and has deliberately hidden the fact that they are connected to him, which is great, because that means Mara’s people can attack them without provoking the magicians.
However, to do this, and to get closer to the Holy City, means stripping Mara’s defenses of her old estate near Sulan Qu–her original family estate. They all agree it is to be risked/sacrificed.
Mara knows there is less support for her politically–Jiro has more appeal to the broader traditionalist group of Lords, while she has a smaller support base among the progressives. The only way for her to win this is to have some definitive, effective early wins and shows of strength, to bring some of the traditionalists over to her side. But the threat of the magicians prevents this. Aargh, it’s all so frustrating!
Kamlio silently objects to Arakasi’s attitude when the subject of courtesan spies comes up. He calmly interrupts the meeting to explain the misunderstanding–his objection is to the Lord Benshai of the Chekowara’s manipulation of very young women to be spies for him, and his feelings come from the fact that one such courtesan-spy, Teani, almost destroyed Mara.
He and Kamlio have a very awkward and yet intimate conversation about their feelings, right there in the middle of the meeting, leading to them both staring in frantic confusion at each other.
Mara, realising how dumb her two darlings are, breaks the tension by giving Kamlio leave to go and wash her face. She and Lujan then give Arakasi an encouraging pep talk about how well he’s doing.
Lujan lectures Arakasi about how Kamlio is going to be a lot more tender towards him if he can show that he needs her, instead of projecting scary Spy Master competence and self-reliance all the time. Love isn’t about logic, dude! It’s about squishy feelings!
Mara approves this message. She reflects inwardly that her highly intellectual and logical relationship with Hokanu is less satisfying than her wild passion was with Kevin. In case anyone was wondering at all about the intended romantic direction of her plotline.
We all remember Kevin, right? The book Really Wants Us to remember Kevin. It may be important. Don’t forget him, okay? Kevin.
Now that Arakasi’s lovelife is officially checked off the agenda, they call Keyoke into the meeting because, you know, Advisor for War. The fact that they didn’t do this earlier suggests that Keyoke has voluntarily opted out of any agenda items involving romantic advice because, what the hell, guys, can we focus here?
Meanwhile, in a wet forest, Chumaka and Jiro are hanging out with a bunch of siege engines. Sadly for Chumaka, his master’s impatience is on the verge of undoing years of complex behind the scenes espionage shenanigans.
Also, I’m pretty sure Chumaka’s employer wouldn’t dedicate half a war meeting to securing him a sexy wife, just saying, Mara’s attitude to human resources is a lot more friendly, Chumaka should check if they’re hiring.
The Great One Tapek appears in Jiro’s tent, and demands an accounting of their war-like behaviour of recent weeks. Jiro smugly insists that he ask Mara and Hokanu that question instead, which irritates Tapek greatly.
Good one, Jiro, alienate the Magician who was mostly on your side before you started talking to him.
Tapek issues a summons to the Holy City to talk out their feelings, and grudgingly admits that Mara is being likewise summoned.
Chumaka is delighted–they’ve basically been given permission to enter the Holy City with an honour guard, which means they can surely get set up before Mara arrives (because the Anasati forces are closer) but also when the Omechan Force Commander starts the siege on their behalf (as pre-arranged), Jiro will look extra innocent because of being inside the city under siege. All this, and he’ll be perfectly placed to stage an “accident” for Mara’s children.
Jiro sulks because this plan doesn’t seem to prioritise the killing of Mara, which is the most important thing about it all to him.
Chumaka is really too good for this bullshit, but he agrees that killing Mara is a priority. He plans for Jiro’s army to goad Mara into attacking near Sulan Qu, thereby getting the Great Ones to kill Mara on his behalf.
Obviously he has not realised that the Great Ones never get anything done in a hurry because everything they do has to go through committee.
He paused, his eyebrows tipped upwards in inquiry. “If you want to know anything of my thoughts, on this or any other subject, you have only to ask. Only, please leave off staring at me as if I were a book scroll, or a puzzle, or some sort of talking pet.”
Kamlio started to her feet, confusion on her face. “I don’t think of you that way.” She seemed breathless, as if she had been running. She started to bow, her mouth parted to ask Mara’s leave to depart; but the bland expression on her mistress’s face gave her no promise of quarter. She blinked, raised her chin, and looked at the Spy Master in wide-eyed vulnerability. “I don’t know what to ask you. I don’t know what to think of you. But you frighten me to the depths of my heart, there is truth.” Her soft almond eyes filled with tears. “I am scared and I don’t know why.”
For an instant, the Spy Master and the girl confronted each other in tortured confusion. Lujan stayed riveted, his hand too tight on his sword.
You guys, I am shipping Arakasi/Kamlio so hard right now, and I regret nothing.
Watching Arakasi flail about uselessly at something after two books building on his supreme competence is my favourite thing ever. I’m going to be hard pressed to talk about politics after this, I think I’m only in it for the shipping for the rest of the book!
It’s kind of hilarious that Mara and Lujan are going with ‘flail uselessly, it’s adorable’ as their key romantic advice for Arakasi.
I also like that the balance of power has changed noticeably since the journey across the sea–while Mara and Lujan are still shipping Arakasi/Kamlio like mad, the time they have spent bonding with Kamlio is important. Previously, Mara set herself up as an ally to Kamlio and made it clear that she shouldn’t feel obliged to be Arakasi’s romantic reward for a job well done.
Now, though, both Lujan and Mara are Kamlio’s friends, and they are as invested in her future happiness as they are in Arakasi’s. Which is, it has to be said, Extremely Invested. The two of them are this close to publishing some sort of newsletter on the topic of how awesome it would be if Arakasi and Kamlio got together.
The only thing that would make me happier at this point is if Lujan clued Kamlio into the plan for Arakasi to trip over and be needy in her general direction, so she could have equal enjoyment of watching him expressing his love through slapstick comedy.
Does anyone else want to read the missing chapter in which Lujan sets himself up as Sir Lonely Hearts, dispensing sage romantic advice to all of the Acoma soldiers during the quiet moments between battles? I want to read that chapter so much! Where is the Empire trilogy fanfic? (I will admit that I checked Archive of Our Own for a tag, just in case.) Were there xeroxed fanzines, back in the day? Don’t leave me hanging, fandom!
I am reproducing the following in full because I think it is one of my favourite speeches of this entire trilogy, especially because it turns the idea of Kamlio being Arakasi’s “reward” on its head and suggests that the best thing he can do to win her attention is to sacrifice his ego and traditional displays of virile achievement.
Also because it means Lujan has been thinking about all this with extreme depth and detail, possibly when he should have been working on the actual war they’re fighting.
When the Spy Master’s mystified expression failed to clear, Lujan said, “Gods, she’s never seen you make a mistake. You killed tong assassins, and lived; you made love in her master’s bed, and if you sweated, it was in passion rather than fear. You touched her in ways few men could, I would wager, which means you were the first person alive who saw into her feelings. That frightened her because it meant that her beauty or her training failed, or that you were too smart to succumb to her allure. A man in her arms is not supposed to be left with the wits to think beyond his stiff organ. So she’s scared. None of her skills will avail her where you are concerned. She can wear no mask for protection. She is offered a man who can understand her, but whose feelings she can’t read in return. Bedroom pleasures she’s bored with, because caring for a man is outside her experience. She’ll have to be led and shown. But for that, she must lose her awe of you. Try tripping on a stone and falling at her feet one day, and see if she doesn’t jump down beside you and start doctoring your skinned knees.”
Mara said, “For a lout who takes advantage of women, you can be surprisingly insightful, Lujan.”
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. 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!