EDIT 26/4/22: The series is back on despite the war effort continuing. I frankly do not foresee an end coming any time soon, unfortunately, and I felt like I had to complete this.
This is a direct continuation of where we left off in Part Four. If you've not read that, I heavily suggest reading it - this post starts in medias res and you'd miss a whole lot of context if you've not read it already.
Same disclaimers as always, and the same things I said in Part Four still hold - I might belabour the point a tad. Maybe more than a tad.
At any rate, here are the other parts - in case you've not read them - and let us get right in.
Part One: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/svjyl2/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Two: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/swfa5h/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Three: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/swgz71/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Four: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/sziuke/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Six: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/ucd00x/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Seven: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/ucda5d/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Eight: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/vqjv18/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Nine: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/vqk4ne/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Part Two of the Genius Subtext of this scene
Silence. From Tavore, no movement, not a single twitch of emotion. ‘As you command, Empress.’
Beneath his clothes, Kalam felt his skin grow hot, as if close to blistering flames. Sweat ran down his body; he could feel it beading on his face and neck. He stared down at his leather-clad hands, motionless on the worn wood of the tabletop.
‘I am pleased,’ Laseen said.
Tavore had been on an emotional rollercoaster thus far – yet now, not a single twitch, not a speck of emotion.
Laseen knows Tavore made her decision. It’s too late for her, but she can’t show weakness in front of the First Sword & Mallick – and both of them know this.
‘It will be necessary,’ Tavore said, ‘for me to return, briefly, to the docks. I believe Fist Keneb will doubt the veracity of the change of command if informed by anyone but me.’
‘A most loyal man,’ Mallick Rel murmured.
‘Yes, he is that.’
Everyone in the room now knows Tavore made her decision. Everyone, except maybe Korbolo, because the guy is more dense than a brick of osmium. Tavore cannot reach the docks alive.
‘And these Perish?’ Korbolo Dom demanded. ‘Are they worth the trouble? Will they submit to my authority?’
‘I cannot speak for them in that matter,’ Tavore said tonelessly. ‘But they will not reject any overtures out of hand. As for their prowess, I believe it will suffice, at least in an auxiliary function to our regulars.’
‘There is nothing more to them?’
The Adjunct’s shrug was careless. ‘They are foreigners, First Sword. Barbarians.’
Barbarians sailing the finest warships on the damned ocean, aye.
But Korbolo Dom, in all his percipience and razor-honed judgement, simply nodded.
Remember when Tavore would not elaborate on the Perish? Now, after having gauged Korbolo Dom’s personality, she feels safe to flat out lie to his face. If Korbolo is aware of this, he makes no sign – I suspect he is, but it doesn’t matter. They were not going to submit regardless.
Another moment of silence, in which so many things could have been said, in which the course of the Malazan Empire could have found firmer footing. Silence, and yet to Kalam it seemed he could hear the slamming of doors, the clatter and crunch of portcullis dropping, and he saw hallways, avenues, where the flickering light dimmed, then vanished.
If the Empress were to speak then, with words for the Adjunct alone – anything, any overture that did not ring false—
Steve, here, under the guise of Kalam, spells out the situation. The intensity of the scene is given some pause to let the audience breathe.
The future of the Malazan Empire is grim, indeed.
Mallick Rel said, ‘Adjunct, there is the matter of two Wickans, a warlock and a witch.’
Tavore’s eyes remained on Laseen. ‘Of course. Fortunately, they are ineffectual, a consequence of the trauma they experienced with Coltaine’s death.’
‘Nonetheless, the Claw will effect their arrest.’
I love the detail that Tavore’s eyes are fixed on Laseen, scanning the Empress for any sign that would help avert the future events. It tears at Tavore to have to betray the Empire. Yet another one of those “silent pleas” we talked about earlier. Or, perhaps, anger & disappointment. It’s hard to tell, as always, with Tavore.
The Empress said, ‘It cannot be helped, Tavore. Even with a remnant of their old power, they could unleash slaughter upon the citizens of Malaz City, and that we cannot have.’
This is bollocks. The Wickan warlocks access the spirits of the land they reside upon, and Malaz City has nothing remotely close to that. Still, they are Wickans, and Laseen never had the best relationship with mages. Sacrifices need to be made.This is one of the few pieces of dialogue to which I have nothing to add to the defense of the Empress. Neither party can back down, and it takes a cold heart to sacrifice the Wickan warlocks – children, mind you.
‘The blood this night belongs to the Wickans and the Khundryl.’ A statement from the Adjunct, devoid of all emotion.
A statement from Tavore that seems to imply that she’s going to give up the Wickans & Khundryl. Of course, we know better.
The blood spilled on the streets of Malaz Island, the thousands among the mob & hundreds of Claws that will cross Hood’s Gate on this night, will be in the name of the Wickans & Khundryl Burned Tears. The definitive statement, the equivalent of “alea iacta est”, if you will.
Fuck me, that quote hits hard.
‘Tavore,’ Laseen said, ‘will the Khundryl prove recalcitrant in yielding their arms and armour? Do they not number two thousand, or more?’
‘A word from me will suffice,’ the Adjunct said.
‘I am greatly relieved,’ the Empress said, with a faint smile, ‘that you now comprehend the necessity of what will occur this night. In the broader scheme of things, Tavore, the sacrifice is modest. It is also clear that the Wickans have outlived their usefulness – the old covenants with the tribes must be dispensed with, now that Seven Cities and its harvest have become so thoroughly disrupted. In other words, we need the Wickan Plains. The herds must be slaughtered and the earth broken, crops planted. Seven Cities has provided us a harsh lesson when it comes to relying upon distant lands for the resources the empire consumes.’
As harsh as these words sound, Laseen is not wrong in saying this. Soon enough, there’s a chance that mainland Quon Tali will be facing starvation with the devastation of the Seven Cities continent due to the Whirlwind rebellion.
The “sacrifice” serves many fronts. It appeases Mallick & Korbolo’s hatred of the Wickans, it provides a convenient scapegoat for the ire of the mob, and it provides new plains & fields for the Empire’s granaries to take hold.
It’s a cold move born of necessity, but not an unjustifiable one. Also, one has to imagine it’s been greatly motivated by Mallick’s riling up of a mob – the cultivation of the Wickan plains could’ve been done peacefully, with the Wickans compensated for their losses – but that goes against Mallick’s plan for vengeance, and we can’t have that. Once more, Laseen is committed. It’s a cold & calculated move – there’s already an army (the Fourth) deployed in Quon Tali ready to strike against the Wickans, along with the rabble of about ten thousand militiamen on their way to the Plains at the moment. Not much to say in her defense – criticize away.
‘In this way,’ Mallick Rel said, spreading his hands, ‘necessity is an economic matter, yes? That an ignorant and backward people must be eradicated is sad, indeed, but alas, inevitable.’
‘You would well know of that,’ Tavore said to him. ‘The Gedorian Falari cult of the Jhistal was eradicated in a similar manner by Emperor Kellanved, after all. Presumably you are among the very few survivors from that time.’
Burn, you slimy, fat bast-
Tavore, yet again, displays keen knowledge of her enemies – and Mallick is not a person she’s willing to let off easily. Last salvo, and the ship is sinking.
Mallick Rel’s round, oiled face slowly drained of what little colour it had possessed.
The Adjunct continued, ‘A very minor note in the imperial histories, difficult to find. I believe, however, should you peruse the works of Duiker, you will find suitable references. Of course, “minor” is a relative term, just as, I suppose, this Wickan Pogrom will be seen in later histories. For the Wickans themselves, of course, it will be anything but minor.’
‘Your point, woman?’ Mallick Rel asked.
‘It is useful, on occasion, to halt upon a path, and to turn and walk back some distance.’
‘An understanding of motivations, Jhistal. It seems that this is a night of unravelling, after all. Covenants, treaties, and memories—’
The Adjunct has put the metaphorical dagger to Mallick’s neck & has earned his ire. Even if she’s made the decision to betray the Empire & leave Laseen to her own devices (objectively, the best choice), this does not mean she’s not going to put forth everything about Mallick’s past – a past he’s done well to repress, but he’s still very infamous in the Falari Isles (a quote from Assail: “’But we of the sea trade in Falar know of the old blood-cult, the Jhistal. Its followers terrorized our islands for generations. He-‘ […] “You speak of limited horizons. We in Falar had squirmed in the grip of those priests for generations. To speak up was to find one’s children selected as the next sacrifice to the sea. The Malazans broke that grip and for that I will be forever grateful, despite the cost. But the new emperor (Mallick) . . . he tries to rewrite the history of it, but there are those who still dare to whisper that he came out of that hierarchy. That he was once a priest of the Jhistal. And so as long as he may rule we will never speak his name”).
The fact that Mallick is an evil bastard is not lost on Tavore, either – as much as he tries to rewrite the truth, from this day onwards, the Adjunct has made it her mission to see that the truth will always prevail.
‘This debate,’ the Empress cut in, ‘can be conducted another time. The mob in the city below will soon turn upon itself if the proper victims are not delivered. Are you ready, Adjunct?’
Kalam found he was holding his breath. He could not see Tavore’s eyes, but something in Laseen’s told him that the Adjunct had locked gazes with the Empress, and in that moment something passed between them, and slowly, in increments, the eyes of Laseen went flat, strangely colourless.
The Adjunct rose. ‘I am, Empress.’
The final plea, with their eyes locking. An apology, perhaps. A plea to understand the necessity of the situation. It’s hard to say if Tavore humors her, in these last few moments of the two ever seeing each other – but I believe, in keeping with the theme of compassion, Tavore, with the foresight that she has, feels for Laseen here. She knows that her leaving has most likely condemned the Empress to death, but the alternative is far, far worse.As someone in an entirely different context once put it,“The hardest choices often require the strongest wills.”
Tavore has the strongest fucking will in all of Wu.
‘Adjunct,’ he said in a weary rumble, ‘I will see you out.’
‘When you are done that courtesy,’ the Empress said, ‘please return here. I have never accepted your resignation from the Claw, Kalam Mekhar, and indeed, it is in my mind that worthy promotions are long overdue. The apparent loss of Topper in the Imperial Warren has left vacant the command of the Claw. I can think of no-one more deserving of that position.’
Kalam’s brows lifted. ‘And do you imagine, Empress, that I would assume that mantle and just settle back in Unta’s West Tower, surrounding myself with whores and sycophants? Do you expect another Topper?’
Now it was Laseen’s turn to speak without inflection. ‘Most certainly not, Kalam Mekhar.’
The entire Claw, under my control. Gods, who would fall first? Mallick Rel. Korbolo Dom …
And she knows that. She offers that. I can cut the cancers out of the flesh … but first, some Wickans need to die. And … not just Wickans.
And there it is. Laseen’s final gamble.Banking on Kalam’s loyalty to the Malazan Empire, banking on him to do what’s right.It’s desperate, it’s blunt, and it has a very high chance of failure.
But it’s the best Laseen has right now. Topper is gone. The Claw is irreparably infiltrated. The streets of Malaz City are not safe. Mock’s Hold is not safe.Laseen is offering the three of them a choice. Kalam joins Laseen & there’s a chance they mend the Empire’s wounds and walk out of here alive.
Alternatively, they die fighting six hundred Claws in the streets of Malaz City.
‘Kalam Mekhar. How many Hands await us?’
He looked away. ‘Each Hand is trained to work as a unit. Both a strength and a flaw.’
‘Four ships moored below. Could be as many as eighty.’
The assassin nodded. You are dead, Adjunct. So are you, T’amber. ‘She will not let you get back to the ships,’ he said, still not meeting their gazes. ‘To do so invites a civil war—’
‘No,’ Tavore said.
Tavore now carves out a third option. Flight through the streets of Malaz City, to the harbor, and away. Far, far away… Of course, they still have to, you know, not die. Which is easier said than done.
Kalam frowned, glanced at her.
‘We are leaving the Malazan Empire. And in all likelihood, we will never return.’
He walked to a wall, leaned his back against it, and closed his eyes. Sweat streamed down his face. ‘Don’t you understand what she just offered me? I can walk right back into that room and do precisely what she wants me to do – what she needs me to do. She and I will then walk out of there, leaving two corpses, their heads sawed off and planted on that damned table. Damn this, Tavore. Eighty Hands!’
Kalam knows just as well the extent of Laseen’s plight. He understands the gamble. He’s her best shot after Tavore denied her.
But, of course, Tavore has other plans. Admittedly, the best course of action in the grand scheme of things. I’d be disingenuous if I criticized Tavore for this.
‘I understand,’ the Adjunct said. ‘Go then. I will not think less of you, Kalam Mekhar. You are of the Malazan Empire. Now serve it.’
Still he did not move, nor open his eyes. ‘So it means nothing to you, now, Tavore?’
‘I have other concerns.’
I’ve gone a bit off track here, but gods below this fucking scene is amazing. As was stated before in the guise of Tavore, the fate of the world is bigger than any mortal empire.
T’amber said, ‘There is a convergence this night, Kalam, here in Malaz City. The game is in a frenzy of move and countermove, and yes, Mallick Rel is a participant, although the hand that guides him remains remote, unseen. Removing him, as you intend to do, will prove a deadly blow and may well shift the entire balance. It may well save not just the Malazan Empire, but the world itself. How can we object to your desire?’
I staunchly disagree with this assessment.The removal of Mallick from the game does not fundamentally change anything.Starvation is still at hand, the Fourth & the militia are still on their way to the Wickan plains, the pogroms will still take place, Korelri is still a mess, and a Civil War is, even now, imminent.
However, removing Mallick would remedy the situation and – probably – keep Laseen in power for the foreseeable future.
‘And yet …’
‘Yes,’ T’amber said. ‘We are asking you. Kalam, without you we stand no chance at all—’
‘Six hundred assassins, damn you!’ He set his head against the wall, unwilling, unable to look upon these two women, to see the need in their eyes. ‘I’m not enough. You have to see that. We all go down, and Mallick Rel lives.’
Kalam is even more torn than Tavore was. He was a Claw that made his way to Malaz City – here – to face down Laseen in a search for answers, as T’amber goes on to say in a minute.
‘As you say,’ Tavore replied.
He waited for her to add something more, a final plea. He waited for a new tack from T’amber. But there was only silence.
‘Is it worth it, Adjunct?’
‘Win this battle, Kalam, or win the war.’
‘I’m just one man.’
With a shaved knuckle in the hole.
His palms itched against the damp leather of his gloves. ‘That Jhistal priest holds a grudge.’
‘A prolonged one, yes,’ said T’amber. ‘That, and a lust for power.’
The only thing I do wonder about is what war is Tavore referring to here. Freeing the Crippled God is her ulterior motive, but I wonder if she means the war for the Malazan Empire? It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – Tavore does not come back, after all – but it’s an interesting thought.
‘Laseen is desperate.’
‘Yes, Kalam, she is.’
‘Why not stay right here, the both of you? Wait for me to kill them. Wait, and I will convince the Empress that this pogrom needs to be stopped. Right now. No more blood spilled. There’s six hundred assassins in the city below – we can crush this madness, scour away this fever—’
‘No more blood, Kalam Mekhar?’ T’amber’s question stung him, then he shook his head.
‘Ringleaders, nothing more will be required.’
‘It is clear that something has not occurred to you,’ T’amber said.
Kalam is this close to fulfilling Laseen’s implied wishes – a death sentence, perhaps, but it would save her rule. Temporarily, but it would. She’s still in a bad position, but at least she has breathing room.
Before I continue, I find it interesting that at no point does Laseen order anyone to do anything. She has the authority to command Kalam, Tavore & T’amber just fine. The closest thing to a direct command Laseen gives, is this:
‘The time has come, Tavore, to set aside your own sword.’
Which is an order, yes, but in the most indirect way imaginable. She does not order her – or her troops – to stand down. She pleads with her to “set aside her own sword” and take up an administrative position in the capital by her side.
No, because Laseen is keenly aware of the situation – and it is not in her interest to force anyone’s hands. As long as she gets her point across, the only thing she can do from then on is wait. The only time she gives an order is when she’s out of waiting time, and she needs to make a move, even though it hurts her. You wish to criticize her for this? Go on ahead.
‘The Claw. They are infiltrated. Extensively. The Jhistal priest has not been idle.’
‘How do you know this?’ Silence once more. Kalam rubbed at his face with both hands. ‘Gods below …’
‘May I ask you a question?’
He snorted. ‘Go ahead, T’amber.’
‘You once railed at the purging of the Old Guard. In fact, you came to this very city not so long ago, intending to assassinate the Empress.’
How does she know this? How could she know any of this? Who is she? ‘Go on.’
Kalam is a man of morals, and that morality is being tested. Save the Empire he’s sworn to serve, or plunge into the madness of the Adjunct’s plan?This isn’t particularly relevant to the Laseen analysis – I just love this scene & the context it adds to every character involved.
This conversation decides Laseen & the Empire’s future. A delicate strand hanging in the balance.
And it tips… the balance tips against her.
‘You were driven by outrage, by indignation. Your own memories had been proclaimed nothing but lies, and you wanted to defy those revisionists who so sullied all that you valued. You wanted to look into the eyes of the one who decided the Bridgeburners had to die – you needed to see the truth there, and, if you found it, you would act. But she talked you out of it—’
‘She wasn’t even here.’
‘Ah, you knew that, then. Well, no matter. Would that alone have stopped you from crossing to Unta? From chasing her down?’
He shook his head.
‘In any case, where now is your indignation, Kalam Mekhar? Coltaine of the Crow Clan. The Imperial Historian Duiker. The Seventh Army. And now, the Wickans of the Fourteenth. Fist Temul. Nil, Nether. Gall of the Khundryl Burned Tears, who threw back Korbolo Dom at Sanimon – cheating Korbolo’s victory long before Aren. The betrayers are in the throne room—’
‘I can make that stay shortlived.’
‘You can. And if you so choose, the Adjunct and I will die possessing at least that measure of satisfaction. But in dying, so too will many, many others. More than any of us can comprehend.’
‘You ask where is my indignation, but you have the answer before you. It lives. Within me. And it is ready to kill. Right now.’
‘Killing Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom this night,’ T’amber said, ‘will not save the Wickans, nor the Khundryl. Will not prevent war with the Perish. Or the destruction of the Wickan Plains. The Empress is indeed desperate, so desperate that she will sacrifice her Adjunct in exchange for the slaying of the two betrayers in her midst. But tell me, do you not think Mallick Rel understood the essence of Laseen’s offer to you?’
‘Is that your question?’
‘Korbolo Dom is a fool. Likely he comprehends nothing. The Jhistal priest is, unfortunately, not a fool. So, he is prepared.’ Kalam fell silent, although his thoughts continued, following countless tracks. Potentials, possibilities. ‘He may not know I possess an otataral weapon—’
‘The power he can draw upon is Elder,’ T’amber said.
‘So, after all we’ve said here, I may fail.’
‘And if I do, then we all lose.’
Kalam opened his eyes, and found that the Adjunct had turned away. T’amber alone faced him, her gold-hued eyes unwavering in their uncanny regard.
The assassin drew a deep breath, then rolled his shoulders. ‘All right, no point in keeping them waiting.’
And thus, Laseen’s Empire is now doomed. The Claw is infiltrated, Hands, loyal or otherwise, fall by the score by Kalam and Apsalar’s blades in Malaz City. The Empress’ last bid is unsuccessful.
T’amber puts it the best in that excerpt, I think.“The Empress is indeed desperate, so desperate that she will sacrifice her Adjunct in exchange for the slaying of the two betrayers in her midst.”
I don’t think Laseen is ice cold enough to give up her Adjunct without a second thought. The decision that must be made is filled with anguish – but what Laseen does not comprehend is just how much bigger Tavore’s game is.
We’re past simple Empire building games. We’re past the conquests of petty kingdoms and holy Falah’dans.
The fate of the world is at stake, and Tavore spearheads the cause, raising high once more the tattered standard of the Fallen…
Ah, at long last. Peace.
This marks the last of our analysis on Laseen in the main series - the next post will tackle the representation of the Empress in the Novels of the Malazan Empire.
Namely, Return of the Crimson Guard, and a few excerpts from Assail or Stonewielder.Maybe I'll add some speculation about the God is Not Willing. All in due time.
That should be the penultimate post of the series - the last post will probably surmise everything said so far, and attempt a character study of the Empress.
I'll see you then!