Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
This week, we find out the deepest secret of the cho-ja, as Mara’s enemies close in around her. It’s beginning to smell a lot like doom around here!
Chapter 30: Pursuit
SUMMARY: Mara flees the battle between her own men and the Minwanabi soldiers in House Acoma armour. She narrowly avoids death several times, and when she reaches the cho-ja hive, she is shocked that several insectoid workers gear up to protect her from her attackers – they are not only forbidden to fight, but are also not fighting specialists, and as they close around her she realises they are willing to die, but not fight, in order to get her safely into the hive.
Mara struggles inwardly with the question of whether or not she should request to ride a cho-ja to reach their Queen – considering all the factors including safety, dignity and her own weariness, not to mention the potential insult to her hosts. The decision is taken out of her hands, when a representative of the Queen makes it clear that speed is of the essence.
The Queen of this hive refuses to help Mara now that she has acted against the Assembly, but Mara confesses that the ancient treaty between human Magicians and cho-ja has been broken already – by her, as she travelled to Chakaha and has two cho-ja mages hidden in the hive on Acoma land.
Her logic, shameful though it is, is that the cho-ja have no choice but to aid her, as the Magicians will not care who broke the treaty, only that it is broken and all cho-ja are subject to its terms.
The Queen accepts this piece of emotional blackmail and yet will not budge – it may not matter to the Magicians, but the cho-ja are physically incapable of breaking a treaty. This is why humans have always had the advantage over them – they have the luxury of breaking the terms if they choose, while the cho-ja do not.
Mara is devastated to realise that she has sacrificed the cho-ja, and many of them will die because of what she has done, because they cannot fight back.
Word comes that the Magicians are demanding that the cho-ja surrender Mara unto them. She volunteers to surrender herself immediately, not wanting to cause unnecessary death, but the Queen seems oddly uncaring about her decision either way.
Mara swallowed. She felt as if the firmness of the earth might at any moment crumble beneath her feet. “Your people could be harmed by such a misunderstanding.”
The Queen did not relent. “Then they would be harmed. That does not make the Black Robes’ misjudgement any closer to the truth. We have kept to the terms of our treaty, as our kind must. If they, as humans, act in error, then the error is theirs, as are the consequences.”
Before Mara can understand the true meaning behind the Queen’s words, the hive comes under attack and the treaty is irretrievably broken… by the Magicians.
Overcome by a blinding flash of light as the hive is destroyed, Mara is certain that this is the end – her final thoughts are of her children, and regret that she failed them.
COMMENTARY: Even in the midst of death and exhaustion, Mara still has time to have an inner crisis about cho-ja/human etiquette! Oh, Mara. Never change.
Still, the humour of this moment is swiftly overtaken. I like that Mara has been busy with her Machiavellian plotting but some of the cultural implications of her scheme have still sailed over her head.
She meant to be clever and ruthless in forcing the hand of the cho-ja, but is still genuinely shocked to discover that the corner she has forced them into is a lot, well, pointier than previously realised.
The big reveal of the chapter – the Queen telling Mara that the cho-ja are physically incapable of taking the Get Out of Jail Free card of moral high ground that Mara arranged on their behalf – is nicely telegraphed by the initial scene, in which the cho-ja workers use passive resistance (and die in great numbers) to protect Mara’s life.
Given the hints we have received all along about the cho-ja and how they work, it’s fascinating to have it confirmed here that their loyalty and famous commitment to treaties is not just a cultural quirk, but a biological one. Like bees that die as soon as they lose their sting, the cho-ja will die if they break their word. No wonder they have such a strong cultural respect for treaty negotiation, as shown all the way back in Daughter of the Empire, when Mara bargained for the young Queen to move to her lands.
Would Mara have done everything the same if she had known upfront that she was dooming the cho-ja to die at the hands of the Assembly of Magicians? She always planned to give them no choice, which is morally dubious, but she was hoping they would at least be able to defend themselves.
Still, it does look like the Queen has something mysterious up her sleeve, probably something to do with that phrase in italics. There’s definitely something sneaky going on here. Roll on the next chapter!
[Spoilers: Mara is totally not dead. She’s the main character, you guys. She still has stuff to do.]
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 & Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, and listen to her on Galactic Suburbia or the Verity! podcast.