An In This Land short story from The Red Book
Copyright June 17, 2014
by Matthew Haldeman-Time
If you enjoy this series, please recommend it to a friend.
Behind her smile, Ireta Hasi Onalun seethed. These vapid, cruel, thoughtless people. They were lucky that she didn’t hurl her drink directly into someone’s face. Or do something equally humiliating, like ask someone to add seven plus three.
Bitterly amused by the thought, she relaxed, the hard edges of her smile softening. She didn’t despise everyone here at the queen’s party. She had friends; she’d made sure of that. She’d negotiated her entrance into society with great care.
It had been the work of a lifetime to bring her to this moment. When had the wheels first begun to move? When she’d cultivated a friendship with the influential Tibusana family, determined to use them as leverage to propel her among the Ilaeian nobility? Before that, when she’d fallen in love with Eiapelai and its rich cultural history, its glittering society, its sophisticated patrons? Before that, when she’d spent her girlhood days in Orina Anoris seeking out the latest royal gossip and dreaming of attending a ball at the palace? She’d yearned to wear pearls and dance with royalty.
Well, here she was. Decked out in priceless sapphires and attending royal functions. Different royalty, of course. It had taken work to learn the intricate subtleties of Ilaeian manners. There were nuances everywhere. During her introduction to King Ouia, she’d almost destroyed her reputation by standing with her feet apart instead of delicately placed at angles, one in front of the other. She’d berated herself for weeks, and some people still brought it up when they saw the opportunity to embarrass her, but the king had been good-natured enough to consider it part of her “foreign eccentricity.”
Foreign eccentricity. Everyone from King Ouia to her own servants attributed every little thing she did to her Anorian upbringing. If her accent wasn’t as impeccable as a native-born Ilaeian, if she spoke too much or not enough, if she laughed too loudly or didn’t get the joke, if she wore an extra bracelet or adjusted her hat with the wrong hand, well, she was Anorian, don’t you know! The fact that she was Anorian, she’d learned, automatically made everyone consider her to be simple-minded, brainwashed, overly religious, available for sex to anyone who asked, a sex worker, and “disturbingly mystical.”
Being Anorian wasn’t as bad as being common-born, however. Oh, no. The fact that she’d once lived without a title made her innately inferior. She would never, ever forget the time her new sister-in-law had leaned across the dinner table to ask, “Then your parents didn’t have any titles at all? Didn’t that make you feel worthless?” Or the time the queen’s cousin had chosen to compliment her by saying, “She’s quite charming, isn’t she? I never would have guessed that someone so pretty was born to trash.”
She knew all of their digs, their judgments, their criticisms. She knew that any social mistake, any fashion slip, any misstep, would be noticed, commented upon, and remembered forever. Gossip lived forever; Ireta herself could recount in great detail social tragedies which had occurred years before she’d come to Ilaeia. She didn’t want to be haunted by any more rumors and mistakes than she had to, so she educated herself relentlessly. She quizzed her husband on what she’d done well, where she’d gone wrong, and what would be expected of her next.
She defiantly refused to expose vulnerabilities to these vultures. She spoke with a perfect accent. Her laughter was throaty, bubbling, tinkling, or dry as the moment called for it. She schooled her expressions even when she was alone. She dressed exactly as fashion dictated. She thrived on having the right stationery, alighting from the coach on the correct foot, and being able to communicate any of a dozen emotions with a silent blink.
She loved this world of nobility and patrons. She loved the clothing, the parties, the gossip. She loved going to the ballet every week, being invited to lunch with the queen, owning some of the greatest artists in the world, wearing diamonds, and being Lady Soaei. Issuing orders and being submitted to with a modest bow and, “Yes, my lady,” still gave her a subtle thrill.
She’d wanted parties and fancy clothing and a turn around the dance floor in royalty’s arms. She had all of that plus power, wealth, and social influence. She was now at the stage where she could treat a newcomer exactly as shabbily as Lord Soaei’s associates had once treated her. And it felt spectacular.
His hairdresser quailed. “My lady?”
“I explained to you in coherent terms, did I not, that I wanted Lord Mirotam’s hair to be neat and tidy this afternoon?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Then what is this?” she demanded, staring in disgust at her son’s head. He looked at her with worried gray eyes, and she patted his shoulder reassuringly, explaining firmly, “Fret not, darling, no matter if this is the result of deliberate sabotage or mere incompetence, I won’t let you attend the royal picnic looking like a wreck.”
“Sabotage, no, my lady,” the hairdresser insisted. “I made his hair as tidy as I could, but it does have a bit of a wave to it.”
A bit of a wave was an understatement. Mirotam’s gorgeously thick hair was everything but curly. She was determined that it would relax as he grew older; she’d hired someone to research methods to ensure it. “Then you’ll straighten it.”
The hairdresser gave her a questioning look. “I don’t think that anyone’s straightened the hair of someone so young, Lady Soaei. Maybe that’s how it’s done in Orina Anoris, but here, I don’t think that even young Lady Isuoa straightened her hair before she was six.”
“Lord Mirotam is more advanced and more beautiful than Lady Isuoa. Her own mother would agree with that.” Ireta crouched down to make herself even with Mirotam’s height. Cupping his sweet little chin in her hand, she smiled at him and spoke calmly. “Uaoeisuaoe is going to straighten your hair, my darling. It’s going to hurt, but you aren’t going to cry at all, are you? We understand that sometimes, to look pretty, we have to make sacrifices. I want you to look very beautiful for the picnic, and you want that, too, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” he said firmly.
“Good.” Proud of him, she kissed his forehead. “It will all be worth it when you look around this afternoon and see that you’re the most beautiful one there.”
It wasn’t like Mirotam to be careless. “What’s happened?” she demanded.
“It was an accident, my lady,” the servant said. “Lady Enou had him sent home immediately.”
“Of course! You can’t stay at the party looking like this.” What a disappointment! “What’s spilled, juice?”
“Lord Oeawe’s juice,” Mirotam said. “We were lining up to dance and it spilled all over me. You see the mess he’s made. I couldn’t bear to come in the front door so soiled.”
Oeawe? That dull thing Lord and Lady Aeosa called a son? “I do hope that he didn’t do it on purpose.”
Mirotam gave her a bright, innocent smile. “It’s not polite to point out other people’s natural clumsiness, is it, Mother? It isn’t Lord Oeawe’s fault if he’s oaf enough to trip over his own feet. We should be courteous and not draw attention to it.”
Clever little boy. “That’s perfectly correct,” she said approvingly, smoothing his hair. With that beautiful face, he’d be able to feign guilelessness longer than other children. “We must be well-mannered enough to overlook these deficiencies in our friends, even when we suffer for them.” She smiled at the servant in a confiding way. The man smiled back as if charmed by Mirotam’s sweetness. Just as Ireta would have done, Lady Enou had sent one of her most gossip-hungry servants for this house-to-house visit, and Ireta was very proud that Mirotam put on such a good show.
“I wish that I hadn’t been sent home,” Mirotam said with a pretty little pout. “We were just about to dance, and I do love dancing so much. Maybe Lord Oeawe was especially nervous about dancing, although I don’t see why, as his private instructor’s worked with him two days a week all month. It’s too bad that we won’t be able to dance side-by-side, so I won’t be able to praise him on the results of his new skill. Accidents happen, I suppose.”
Her little genius! She wanted to hug him. So smart of him to mention the private dance master, since everyone knew that Oeawe’s parents had only hired him out of desperation. The clumsy fool was the worst dancer of the generation, and everyone knew it. The poor child’s parents were beside themselves, trying to correct his wayward feet. Mirotam, of course, was the best dancer, completely outshining him. Naturally, Oeawe wouldn’t want to invite comparisons. Of course it was entirely possible that he’d used his clumsiness as a cover to drive Mirotam from the party. Mirotam would never say so outright, but he’d drawn a map and would let them figure out the rest on their own. Brilliant child! “I’m so sorry that you weren’t able to stay and enjoy the dance with your friends, darling,” she said, kissing his forehead. “Go and have Oeiaieueoaiu draw you a bath, we can’t allow our dear child to wear ruined attire for another minute.”
“Yes, Mother.” Mirotam hurried away in a relaxed, graceful gait.
Beautiful boy. Ireta smiled at the servant. “Lady Enou was so kind to send Lord Mirotam home. He would have been too embarrassed to remain at the party looking so unkempt. It’s a shame that he couldn’t stay long enough to dance, even, as he does love it so. I hope that Lord Oeawe isn’t upset.” She laughed. “He’s probably enjoying the party too much to fret. A shame that the two friends couldn’t dance side-by-side, but as Lord Mirotam says, accidents happen. So sweet of him, not to hold a grudge. Children often do about this type of incident. I’m glad that he’s not that sort of child.”
“Indeed, my lady,” the servant said. The gleam in his eye was a promising sign. Ireta trusted that by morning, everyone would know that the clumsy brat had, in a cunning and jealous fit, deliberately sent beautiful, talented Lord Mirotam home, and Lord Mirotam had the grace not to hold it against him.
Brilliant, beautiful boy. His ruined clothes would have to be replaced. She’d have two new outfits ordered. His behavior today had earned him a reward.
She would wear only the very best she could afford. It would have to be versatile enough for various occasions and multiple outfits. And she wanted to leave a good legacy for her descendants, not saddle them with garbage as some of her husband’s ancestors had done to her.
Over the years, she’d brought each of her children to accompany her shopping. Lately, she’d left the girls at home and brought Mirotam. Whether she shopped for jewels, hats, or stationery, by the fifth hour, the eighth shop, the girls began to complain. Mirotam never whined about being bored, never dragged his feet, never yawned in the carriage. The only things he complained about, in his witty, charming way, were the shops’ wares or the attendants’ service. He was a delight to shop with, clever and full of insight, winning over everyone they met with his fine manners and beautiful smile.
Ireta would make her final decisions later, in a private consultation when the jeweler met her at home, but it was always important to make a public appearance, to make sure that everyone realized she had the means to buy new jewelry. With Mir at her side, she sat before a lavishly decorated display case, eyeing the ready-made sample pieces meant to whet her appetite and guide her decisions. “What do you think of the rings, my darling? Which is your favorite?”
Twelve-year-old Mirotam set down his glass, studying the rings with a prettily focused expression. Attendants hovered, ready to provide more nourishment, but Mir wasn’t interested in such things as food when new jewelry sat before him. His sisters, like most children, seemed to find the drinks and snacks on hand one of the best aspects of shopping, but Mir only ate enough to be polite. His real attention was on the jewels, and it showed. “The setting on the third is exquisite, but the stone is rather too modest for my own taste.”
She smiled. Of course it was. Mir loved jewelry. She’d warned her husband that their heir was stricken with that most expensive of diseases, gem lust. “It is an elegant setting. Would something like that look pretty, do you think, on your mother’s hand?”
“Of course it will! Absolutely magnificent,” he said immediately. “It will have such warm, gold tones against your beautiful skin.”
She loved him so much, they’d have to return soon to buy something for him, too. She smoothed his hair, and he smiled at her, and that smile stole her heart as surely as it always did. She didn’t want to develop a reputation for fawning over her child, but she couldn’t resist kissing his smooth forehead. “You like the diamond best, don’t you?” she guessed, naming the ring with the biggest stone.
“It’s gorgeous,” he admitted. “But the emerald is so handsomely cut, it draws my eye.”
“Your son has perfect taste,” the jeweler said, stepping behind the display with a smile. “This cut is on the cusp of a new trend. You’ll see more square and rectangle cuts in the coming months, I predict it.”
Mirotam smiled at the jeweler. “Do you think so?”
“Yes, I’m certain of it,” he said. “You’ll want to get ahead of the trend, to be on the forward edge before it explodes. There’s nothing worse than investing in a beautiful piece of jewelry only to find that it’s already so in fashion that it’s going out of style.”
“Oh, you’re so right about that,” Mirotam murmured.
“Is my lady interested in the emerald?” the jeweler asked.
“Yes, but I like the setting on the third, and they don’t at all go together,” she said. “Which sort of cuts would you recommend with that setting?”
“Such a keen eye, my lady. For that setting…” The jeweler unlocked a drawer and showed her a ruby ring. “A stone like this one coordinates well.”
Ordinarily, Mir lit up at the sight of a well-cut ruby, but this afternoon, he merely smiled politely. Alerted that something was wrong, Ireta was cool in her own response. Wanting to find out why he’d suddenly lost interest, she rushed things along and left the shop sooner than she’d intended.
When they were seated side-by-side in the carriage, she squeezed Mir’s pretty hand. “You didn’t like the rubies today?”
“The rubies were exceptional.” He sighed, sitting back and crossing his legs. “It’s a shame that his mother doesn’t run the shop anymore.”
Always amused by Mir’s mimicry of adult behavior, she smiled. “You don’t like him, do you?”
“How could I? Did you hear him, warning us to buy now before his wares go out of fashion? What is he, a fruit vendor worried about ripeness? What kind of foolish jeweler is he?”
Laughing, she kissed his forehead. “And how do you expect him to sell his jewels?”
“By emphasizing their timeless quality. Money is no matter for someone of your standing, but jewelry is a special kind of investment. He shouldn’t frighten his customers into buying, he should remind them that good jewels last forever and they should invest in something they can wear everywhere with everything.”
Amazed, she smoothed his hair. “Who taught you to be such a smart boy?”
He gazed at her with those beautiful, thick-lashed eyes. “Of course it was you.”
Laughing, she peppered his soft cheeks with loving kisses. “Of course it was,” she agreed fondly, caressing his chin.
They never visited that jeweler’s again.
But she didn’t secure her spot at the top of the ranks until she had Mirotam. Even her husband’s spotless reputation and weighty family legacy couldn’t win people over like her little boy could.
Mirotam was beautiful. Oh, it helped that he was precociously bright and profoundly charismatic. But it was his beauty which brought conversation to a standstill whenever she called him into the room. It was his beauty which caused the queen to gush and coo. It was his beauty which grabbed attention and stole hearts. Suddenly, Ireta was in demand. Mirotam was heartbreakingly gorgeous, fabulously wealthy, and the sole male heir to one of the best names in the country. He was the brightest star of the next generation, and everyone knew it.
Ireta and her husband were enormously proud of him and intensely protective. They weren’t going to let stupid mistakes mar his reputation, so they made sure that he knew as many social rules as they could make his young mind understand. As a result, he was more savvy than any of his peers, able to mimic adult manners and conversation, which only added to his charm. Guiding Mir through a spotless childhood was one of the greatest accomplishments of Ireta’s life. He was set to take over Ilaeian society. Some would say that he already had.
Her beautiful seventeen-year-old son. The brightest star in the sky. Oranomi hadn’t taken his body away, but Mirotam had completed his life that day. The life he’d known, the life she and her husband and natural beauty had built for Mirotam, was gone. His existence, from that unspeakably horrible day and forever on, would be so different that he may as well have been a completely different person. He may as well have taken a new name and begun anew.
That had been her plan for him. It had seemed like the best way. She’d asked her husband, couldn’t they just send Mirotam to Orina Anoris? Buy a little cottage in the country for him, hire someone to look after him, and let him live out his days in whatever peace he could find there? From the ashes of his old life, it was the best future she could envision, no matter how broken her heart was.
Keeping Mirotam in Ilaeia hadn’t worked. When he was in Eiapelai, he was like a ghost, a terrifying specter, haunting her with the horror of her son’s fate. And he was a curiosity, drawing too much attention, sparking gossip. Even though no one saw him, the servants gossiped, and patrons gossiped, and people would draw Ireta aside to ask in the most unctuous manner, “And how is he doing these days?” without even referring to Mirotam by name.
When he was in their country home, the rumors were even worse. People talked as if he were some nightmarish creature, claiming to see him lurking in shadows and stalking around at night and peering in windows. They said that he spooked horses and limped ghoulishly and ate rats. It was unbearable.
When he was in the city, she could keep an eye on him. But then she had to see him, to look at him, and she couldn’t tolerate it.
When he was in the country, under less supervision, he drank. He went through his medicine at an alarming rate. When she confessed to her husband that she worried that Mirotam would harm himself, that he’d imbibe too much and do himself in, he said that maybe, all things considered, that would be for the best. She cried her heart out, because it was true, because he was right, and because it was excruciating to have to admit that it would be a mercy if he simply, finally completed his life for good.
He’d be better off in Orina Anoris. Better off in a quiet little bit of countryside where no one had met the beautiful, charismatic boy he’d used to be. Better off isolated from Ilaeian society. Better off among quaint, cheerful people who wouldn’t mind if some odd young man dressed strangely and kept to himself.
She’d come so far from her old way of life. And she was sending her dead son right back into it.
She and her husband made plans and told no one of them. They made inquiries, bought a little bit of farmland, hired a boring couple to work it, and arranged to install Mirotam there. They sent Ijaie and Mirotam to Orina Anoris under other pretenses. The scheme was eventually for Ijaie to return home alone while Mirotam remained behind to settle into an Anorian life.
Which was, indeed, what happened. Only not at all as she’d intended.
He stood by the window; she paced around the bed. Pacing was an old habit, one which helped her think; she only did it in front of him. “Murati. Murati! It can’t be true.”
He shook his head. She knew that he was stunned as she was. “Even for people who prioritize intellect over appearance, this is going too far. There must be a misunderstanding.”
“Ijaie warned us that he was making too much of himself, but how could this happen? What is he thinking?” This news was so shocking, she couldn’t comprehend how such a turn of events had come about. When she tried to imagine what Mirotam was thinking, tried to understand his actions and motivations, she found only more confusion. She felt more disconnected from her son than ever, as if the young man she’d sent away shrouded in black were a stranger to her.
“He must be mad.” Her husband stared at the heavy pink drapes as if gazing through the window. “His illness. It’s affected his mind. I feared as much.”
“Anoha Inanodu, no.” The reflexive invocation was another old habit, another behavior she lapsed into only when she was alone with her husband. She was most herself when she was with him. Sometimes she felt as if she were only herself when she was with him. “The gods wouldn’t permit it.”
“How else do you explain it? Any sane man in his situation would keep his head down and make no trouble.” He shook his head. “He shouldn’t have met the royals at all. He shouldn’t have gone to the palace. Straight to the countryside, and that would be the end of it.”
“What could he be up to? What is his plan?” Making another round of the room, she felt agitated, confused. She and Mirotam had always known each other so well, hadn’t they? Understood each other so plainly, she’d thought. “If he wanted a job at the Royal House of Art, I could see that. He’s so gifted. But as researcher, maybe, something quiet, where he could keep to himself.”
“A job! Why should any son of mine ever want a job! Even in his condition!”
“Of course, no, of course,” she muttered, flustered. “I’m so surprised I can’t think straight. It was a dream for so many of us, growing up. Working for the Royal House of Art. But you’re right, Mirotam’s circumstances are so different.” So different from her own, at his age. So different from what his own should have been.
“He must come home.” His expression was firm. “Whatever nonsense he’s begun and whatever damage he’s done, we’ll straighten it out, but he must come home before it’s any worse.”
She hated to admit defeat, but her plan for Mirotam had become a disaster. It pained and frustrated her that this, too, had gone wrong. The tragedies of Mirotam’s life were also the tragedies of her life. When would the agony ever end? When would she and Mirotam’s ghost ever be permitted to rest?
Over the next days, as gossip spread and speculation increased, she tried to understand what Mirotam could possibly be thinking. He’d taken a high-profile position at the Royal House of Art. He’d become Prince Talin’s patron. He’d become Prince Talin’s lover. Instead of keeping to himself, he shoved himself into public view. Was he clamoring for attention? Deliberately dragging the Soaei name over everyone’s tongue? Was he angry? Was he insane?
She didn’t understand him anymore, not at all. She began to hate this stranger for the trouble he caused. He damaged her husband’s name. He destroyed her precious son’s legacy. Now, instead of mourning the beautiful boy who’d been so tragically lost, everyone gossiped with eager mouths and wide eyes over the sensational antics of the young man who wouldn’t die. When Mirotam was younger, she’d felt welcome everywhere she went, as people greeted her with happy questions about her boy. Now she was keenly aware of their snickering scorn as they whispered behind their hands about the unknown stranger destroying her son’s name.
Whoever this new Lord Mirotam was, she hated him. Why wouldn’t he go away and leave her son in peace? Why wouldn’t he go away and allow her to mourn? He made a mockery of everything which mattered to her, everything she’d worked so hard for, everything she’d cared about.
She would confront him. He would quail before his father’s warnings. He would come back to Ilaeia. As soon as she could, she would send him away, and he would go quietly this time. And then she would finally be able to remember her beloved boy in peace.
Home | In This Land | Rini's MySpace | Feedback | Donate