Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
Because sometimes, you just have to send your army to attack the other army under cover of darkness, and hope for the best.
SUMMARY: Riding towards the Holy City of Kentosani by palanquin in the turmoil of recent events and on the brink of war, Keyoke reads a message from Arakasi to Mara, which includes all kinds of bad news:
- Jiro is ahead of them and will get to Kentosani five days before Mara does, giving him free rein to wreak havoc in her absence.
- Jiro’s siege engines are ready to launch an assault against the walls of Kentosani (under the colours of another House to avoid the Magicians’ wrath) – Mara and Arakasi’s plot with the toymaker to sabotage those engines failed.
So basically it’s all coming up Jiro.
Mara sends Lujan to ride a cho-ja messenger at speed to reach her southern army near Sulan-Qu and bids him to lead them against Jiro’s southern army in order to keep them away from the captital. She and Lujan both know this is likely to raise the attention of the Magicians, and that it’s almost certainly a suicide mission.
Mara will disguise herself as an ordinary soldier and take Saric and ten warriors to approach the Holy City at covert speed, via the cho-ja tunnels, in the hopes of protecting her children. She asks Keyoke to continue on with the palanquin and honour guard, so as to hide her true whereabouts from the Magicians. He and Incomo agree this is for the best, knowing that they are also likely to have their life forfeited for her breaking the edict.
Finally, Mara sends Arakasi’s messenger back to him with the all-important final words of his mistress: that he should find his happiness (AKA hook up with Kamlio) no matter what else happens.
When Lujan reaches the army near Sulan Qu, they report to him that Jiro’s army has been massing, and that he is using the bizarre Midkemian technique of pigeon networks to pass information quickly.
I’m almost proud of Jiro for embracing innovation!
Lujan breaks the news to them that they are to defy the Magicians by attacking Jiro’s army – it’s terrifying but also kind of awesomely freeing, and they all get super enthusiastic about finally being able to do something. Force Leader Irrilandi (Mara recycled him from the Minwanabi where he was Force Commander) is especially excited. So at least someone’s having a good day.
Normally, riding into battle Tsurani-style means lots of fanfare, shouting the name of your master/mistress, and so on. Lujan and the boys are going a different way, attacking by night and planning to create as much confusion as possible among the ranks of the Anasati.
For once, they defeat Chumaka’s intelligence: he had assumed the obvious, that the Acoma were planning for a dawn attack, not a crazy middle-of-the-night one.
By dawn, hundreds are dead, and the battle rages on. Three Magicians, including Akami and the perennially-irritated Tapek, arrive to find out what is happening. Lujan manages some diplomacy in their direction, and does not admit who started the battle.
Unable to determine who is at fault for both Acoma and Anasasi defying the edict, the Magicians demand that Lujan pulls the Acoma forces back and stops fighting. He agrees diplomatically (choosing his words very carefully as he cannot risk lying to them), but requests that he be allowed to retreat in such a way as to minimise harm to his soldiers. They agree to this, and then sit around drinking fruit juice, not understanding a word of the military jargon as Lujan gives orders.
Some time later, it becomes apparent that the battle isn’t actually stopping. Tapek and the other Magician are suspicious, but Akami isn’t bothered about it – assuring them that Lujan knows what he’s doing.
Yes, yes he does.
Tapek finally loses patience and demands that Lujan tell them by what route Mara will be approaching the Holy City. He concedes that she is travelling separately from her honour guard by the back roads, and will use the cho-ja hives if necessary. The Magicians are stunned to discover the nature of Mara’s alliance with the cho-ja, which flies in the face of what they think they know.
COMMENTARY: It’s all hotting up now! Battle-writing is something I’ve always felt to be a particularly difficult part of fantasy fiction, and I think it’s fascinating that Feist and Wurts do so little of it in these books (compared to all the indoor politics, character scenes, dialogue, machinations and descriptions of pretty silks and shatra birds) but when they do give us a flat out battle, it’s done exceptionally well.
As with the descriptions of the desert warfare in the previous volume, we get a powerful sense here of the scale of Lujan’s battle, even though we don’t actually see the fighting itself. From the commander’s position, we learn of the strategies being used, the thought processes behind the warfare, and the massive workload it takes to keep it all straight.
Cleverly, Lujan’s “retreat” is pretty much a reshuffling of support troops, and he does it right under the noses of the inquisitive Magicians. Go, Lujan!
I like that the overall theme of these books – Mara’s revolutionary overturning of Tsurani tradition – is reiterated here, in the thoughts and minds of Lujan and the men fighting under him. They know that they are fighting to serve Mara’s interests, though also that they are too far away to physically protect her, which means they cannot control whether or not they are left without House and honour as the Grey Warriors many of them were when they joined Mara’s service.
They know they are likely to die here, but also know that a great part of what they are fighting for is not just their mistress’s family honour (which to previous generations would have been everything) but for the hope that future generations will not be treated as they have been treated.
The shocking injustice of treating people as non-people when their House is destroyed is one of those key points that the book keeps coming back to – this is wrong, this is unfair, and Mara is the only one who might have half a chance about ridding their world of that injustice once and for all.
It’s implied here that not only Lujan, but all of the Acoma troops, feel this way, and this is the main difference between them and the more traditionalist forces of the Anasati. But which makes for more efficient armies – soldiers who are fighting for a chance of free will and hope of a better future, or soldiers who obey their masters blindly?
I guess we’ll find out.
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!