Façade of Perfection
If Kurine felt at all uncomfortable hearing such things about her parents, she didn’t show it.
As the queen of Akomera considers marriage, her father reminisces about his late wife and their troubled relationship.
Façade of Perfection
Warm sunlight and an intermittent sea breeze through the open windows made the royal study the perfect place to spend the afternoon. This was just as well, since Jiomosu had records to catch up and would have been here even if it had been storming out. Fortunately, this particular set of records was his final task until the evening, so there was nothing wrong with taking his time and enjoying the salt smell and the light.
He wasn’t the type to get so involved in a project that he forgot his surroundings, but neither was he too easily distracted. So although the fineness of the day was ever present on some level of his mind, and though the hue of a loose strand escaping his hair-tie reminded him again that he was starting to get old, and though a thoughtful servant did interrupt him once with a tray of drink and delicacies, he made good progress. When he’d been at it for an hour or so, and was taking an extended break with his by-now-cold cup of giruou, the door opened.
“Father, are you here?”
One of the large carved-oak bookshelves blocked the desk’s view of the door and vice versa, so he replied in the affirmative.
Kurine rounded the shelf and came to stand before the desk. In the bright sunlight she appeared thinner even than she was, and almost dusty in the grey she generally favored. “Good,” she said with a slight nod at having found him. “I wanted to talk to you.”
Usually this meant she wanted his advice on something. Past events, remembered all too keenly, as well as Kurine’s great intelligence and capacity made this a compliment Jiomosu never disregarded. “Of course,” he said, setting aside his work, prepared for whatever matter she needed to discuss. He suspected it would have something to do with whatever had been taking her from Encoutia so much and so quietly in recent months.
She seated herself in one of the reading chairs by the window, the leather barely sinking under her slight weight and her perfect posture uncompromised even in the privacy of a chamber used only by herself and her father. Staring through the window for a long moment, she didn’t seem to be observing the courtyard below them, nor the beach and sea beyond that. The sunlight glinted off her absent eyes, buried itself in her loosely-wound hair, and Jiomosu knew that she had something particular on her mind. Something, if he was any judge of the subtle changes in his daughter’s attitude, that had little to do with politics, which she tended to manage quite well on her own with minimal assistance from him.
Finally she said, “It seems odd to me that I’m twenty-two years old, and a queen, and yet know next to nothing about my mother.”
Jiomosu tried hard not to show his surprise that this was what she wanted to talk to him about. As it always did when Kurine referred to her sensibilities — even something as relatively unemotional as ‘it seems odd’ — the statement struck her father with a mixture of pathos and skepticism: pathos because it felt like such a shame that she was so inhibited, her self-expression so restrained by her nature; skepticism because, despite having known her all her life, he was always led by her demeanor to doubt that she really felt anything at all. It had been exactly the same with her mother.
“You’ve never told me about her,” the queen went on, “so I’ve always assumed that her death affected you too much to talk about her. But lately I’ve been curious.” There it was again — the instant reactionary doubt, although Jiomosu knew better, that anything like curiosity could ever touch that indifferent heart. Though Kurine was less cold than Imau had been — thanks to her father’s genes — he knew there had to be more prompting the question, and wondered what her motives were. Kurine, just like Imau, never did something purely on an emotional basis.
“I’ve asked others about her,” she continued in that same cool, measured tone, “and though they tell me what they think they know, there’s a distance about them that leads me to believe none of them really knew her.”
“I doubt they did,” Jiomosu agreed calmly. “Very few people really knew your mother.”
Grey eyes regarded him steadily, and it was that same calculating look Imau had given him often enough during their years together. “I would appreciate it, if you don’t mind, if you would tell me about her, and your relationship with her.”
‘Your relationship with her.’ That, perhaps, cast some light on the subject. Kurine was four years of courting age, after all, and had been absent from the palace a good deal lately. Not that Jiomosu was going to demand she explain why she wanted to know; honestly, he would tell her whatever she asked, whatever the reason. Far be it from him to deny her anything so harmless.
“Of course,” he nodded again. Pushing past the somewhat heartwarming possibility of his daughter having come to him for… well, he couldn’t actually call what she’d requested advice… but perspective, at least, that might help her in decisions regarding some relationship of her own… he pondered where to begin.
“I never met Rionura or Kaemei,” was what he finally chose, “but my understanding of them was that they were both very cold and calculating men. Maybe they loved each other, but I’m certain neither of them loved their daughter.”
Kurine’s face remained unchanged, her attention unflagging, but something about her gave him the immediate, tacit warning to keep his story succinct and free of unnecessary emotional detail. He also felt she disapproved somewhat of his casual use of her grandfathers’ names without title…. but he couldn’t help regarding them with a certain measure of contempt. He would never overtly speak ill of a former king, pretender though that king might be, especially a father of the woman he’d loved… but sometimes his quiet disdain for their memory couldn’t help but show in his speech. Behind closed doors, at least.
He nodded again, slightly, and went on. “She was raised by a steward in an estate outside of town, raised on the idea of what her status was and her right to be queen.”
It was one of the first things he remembered hearing about Imau, told him by his gossipy steward that had handled his estate after his parents’ death until he was of age. “That’s no way for a child to be raised,” the man had remarked critically. “It’s enough to give someone any number of strange ways and thoughts, being away from her family and always drilled with the idea that she should have something that’s never been certain.”
“Don’t think I ever questioned that right.” Jiomosu chuckled. “Frankly, I was somewhat oblivious to the fact that I might really honestly have a claim to the throne.”
“Why isn’t it certain, if she’s Gontamei?” he’d asked his steward.
And the man had sighed and made some disparaging remark about the performance of Jiomosu’s tutor if he didn’t know. Jiomosu had always considered this a trifle unfair, given that he’d only been nine years old at the time. There was a good deal royalty needed to learn, it was true, whether they were destined for rulership or not, but childhood was childhood; there was no purpose in trying to force too much knowledge into a young mind.
Recovering quickly from his chuckle for fear of driving his daughter away with his candid expression of emotion, he continued seriously. “You’ve heard, I’m sure, about the debate over whether Imau should have a regent, and how that ended. I agree that the process of deciding on somebody for the position might have recreated the very problems we were trying to escape at the time… but it would probably have been easier on her to have a regent until she was of age. Because the division of duty that they chose instead had no declared ending point. When she was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen… I could see it irritating her more and more with every passing month.”
And that was saying something where Imau was concerned. He knew she’d shown him more of what she really thought and felt under that façade of perfection simply because he’d been her fiancee and always around; and that he’d seen more than anyone else of what she did show simply because he watched her so obsessively. Even so, it had always surprised him that others hadn’t observed her ever-increasing resentment.
“All the court had settled into their tasks so comfortably, so irrevocably it seemed, that there was little left for Imau to do, and that didn’t change with time. It was insulting and humiliating and unfair, and nobody seemed to notice except herself. And me, of course.” He strove to keep his voice level, not because he minded admitting how much the memories bothered him, but because he knew it would bother Kurine if he strayed too far from detachment.
One particular instance among others still stood out clearly in his memory. The issue of who was responsible for the upkeep of the Giretor’sa Pass had escalated past local authorities, given that Esaikyou, Egiretoro, and Etoronai, who all had a vested interest in the road, had each had a differing opinion on whence funding and labor for its maintenance should come. Delegates from the three parties had been sent to seek the queen’s mandate.
Evening had been turning to night when they had arrived in Encoutia, and court attendance had ended for the day; so, instead of ‘disturbing’ the queen personally, a minor official dealt with the problem, arbitrating an equal division of resources among the three groups. Not all entirely pleased but assuming they would do no better pressing the issue, the delegates had departed the next day.
It had been more than a month before Imau had even learned of the matter, and she had been as close to furious as Jiomosu remembered ever seeing her, radiating a sort of white-cold heat that nobody else seemed to feel. “Esaikyou and Egiretoro are little more than waystations,” she’d said when she’d heard what decision had been made. “What could lead anyone to think it was fair or proper for them to share any expense equally with the richest city in this kingdom?”
And the response had been a polite apology and the offhand comment that if Esaikyou or Egiretoro found the division a burden, they would surely repeat their petition and the matter could be dealt with then.
And nothing had changed.
“Even I had more responsibility than she did,” Jiomosu continued. “They didn’t intend to slight her; I don’t think anyone ever frankly thought her incapable — how could they? The woman was born capable. Kaemei was head of one of the most successful and long-standing noble trade families west of the Akomer’sa, and managed to run that and the kingdom quite well for half a year.” He said it with grudging respect; little as he liked what he knew of his late father-in-law, he couldn’t help recognizing the man’s talents. This seemed to please Kurine, who, like her mother, measured people by their ability more often than any other indication of personal worth. “Anyway, it was the court’s habit, and had simply become custom by the time she was twenty, to find any means possible to take the queen’s duties out of the queen’s hands.” He stifled a sigh.
“By the time I was courting age, I adored your mother with all my heart,” he went on bluntly. It might disturb Kurine to hear it, but she had asked. “But she didn’t return my feelings. I don’t believe she even liked me. I don’t know if she’d been taught to disdain me… it’s possible… there were quite a few Barenor’meishou vying for my kingship before she and I ever met; Kaemei might well have considered me just another enemy, and had his daughter instructed so. It didn’t seem appropriate to ask her, especially once she was queen and all the conflict had ended, but perhaps that was the reason, or part of the reason, she didn’t like me.”
The set of Kurine’s mouth indicated to him that she was simultaneously slightly uncomfortable listening to this emotional analysis of her parents’ interaction and somewhat unwillingly interested. Jiomosu wondered more than ever why after so many years she had broached this topic now.
He went on. “Of course she tolerated me because of the advantage of our marriage. I was a capable administrator, if not as talented as she was, and she could see as well as anyone else the benefit of having me for Dantaoji — but she didn’t look forward to it.
“But the court did. Somehow I think that, as our wedding approached, they were finally starting to realize that Imau was grown up, that all those duties that were rightfully hers could in good conscience be returned to her. They seemed to regard the wedding as a symbol of that, a coming of age of sorts, despite the fact that she’d been of age for two years and capable of handling the business of ruling for far longer. But it was only after the wedding that they finally started treating her like a queen rather than a child.
“Your mother misinterpreted that. As I said, she’d been justly chafing under their treatment of her for years, and it’s no surprise she saw their attitude in a different light than I did. She really believed they thought her incompetent, and she felt that their looking forward to the wedding was their anticipation of the day when she would finally have someone who was truly capable at her side. As a consequence, she resented me for being that supposedly more capable person.
“I discovered this just after the wedding, when were alone in our shared chambers for the first time.” It was difficult to talk about this, even to his daughter — perhaps most particularly to his daughter, given how much she reminded him of her mother. “She admitted it in frustration and bitterness. She didn’t like confiding in me, but she had nobody else to tell, since she believed they all looked down on her.”
Imau had stared out the window just as Kurine was doing now, but in the dimly-lit evening wedding suite her hair had swallowed all light completely and her eyes had been even duller. Jiomosu hadn’t had any idea what to do or say. Her face had been an impenetrable stone mask all day; she’d performed her part of the wedding ceremony as flawlessly as she did everything else, but apart from that she’d hardly spoken a word to him that entire week. He’d rarely been alone with her in the past, and knew full well how she felt about him… but they were married now…
While he’d been dithering, she’d broken the silence. “And everyone finally gets what they want.”
Surprised into speech by the bitterness in her tone — one of the most emotional statements he’d ever heard her make — he’d asked stupidly, “What do you mean?” As her words had sunken in, he hadn’t overlooked the inclusion of himself in the acridly-referenced group that was getting what it wanted. It had caused his heart to fall from the uncertain heights of that day, and he’d held his breath for her reply.
“Lately I’m lucky if they even remember I’m the queen. But now that I’ve married you…”
Almost instantly he’d understood, and been shocked at the implications of her words. Of course he’d known all along how she resented the court’s behavior, but he hadn’t realized the significance she’d attached to it or to their anticipation of the wedding.
“It’s not like that…” he’d faltered. “It was just because you were so young at first, and I think they’ve finally realized… I don’t think of you like…”
“Not like that?” Her face, reflected dimly in the black glass, had still been that expressionless sculpture, but now had shown signs of cracking. “They’ve been counting down the days. You’ve been counting down the days. They never thought I could do this, not from the beginning. Worthless daughter of the usurpers, crowned because she was the older of the two options. I’m surprised they didn’t find some excuse to forget about that and crown you instead.”
“You’re a better ruler than I could ever be.”
“I know that, and you claim to know that, but they…” The tight control of her tone slipping, years-deep frustration and pain had escaped into her voice. “I’m descended from Gontarun the Unifier, and both of my fathers ruled this kingdom — what other queen in our history can say as much? I was raised on nothing but the proper qualities of a ruler; how can they doubt my qualifications? Doubt me to the point where they’re unwilling even to give me a single chance at proving myself, afraid to take that much of a risk because they’re certain I will fail so terribly that even what I might learn from the experience would not be worth the disaster it would cause?”
Once she’d started, it seemed she hadn’t been able to stop; the words had poured from her mouth toward the smooth glass of the window in a rough, desperate stream.
“Meanwhile every idea I have for the betterment of my country is left to fester unaired while incompetents make my choices for me… because I’m a child, a weak, frail, breakable child who is therefore foolish, set up because she’s from the right family but not allowed to take a single step on her own because she might fall and take the kingdom with her. What will they say of me, of my reign, in future generations? ‘Thank the divine she married when she did?’ Just as they’re all doing down there.
“And you–“ She’d turned, cutting off her frantic tirade when she found how far toward her he’d advanced. She’d stared at him, face twisted, emotion chaotic in her eyes.
“And you…!” Her tone had lost its volume but none of its intensity. At her raised hand he’d thought she was going to strike him, but instead she’d just grasped his embroidered wedding shiiya and the shirt beneath it in a tight-clenched fist. And for the first time, she’d leaned against him, forehead resting against his chest and slim, fragile body pressing slowly, tautly onto his.
Jiomosu shook off the memory with some difficulty. It was one of the heaviest and most painful recollections he carried. “She came to me in anger,” he said slowly. “Not love or even friendship, not even willing to admit that she needed comfort and reassurance. It was the only time I ever saw her like that, but once was enough: she hated me for that night, for seeing her hurt and afraid, and perhaps for taking advantage of that state.”
Had he taken advantage? This he’d always wondered. She’d needed him whether or not she’d been willing to admit it… they were married, and required an heir… she’d initiated, and taken the lead in, their lovemaking… but none of that changed the fact that she hadn’t been herself. He’d wanted her so desperately; that coupling had been the culmination of years of wanting her… but perhaps he had done wrong, and in so doing had destroyed any chance at future happiness. For she might have come to return his feelings, given time… but it was the results of those actions that stole all that time from them.
“It’s lucky you were conceived that night,” he remarked, “because she never let me touch her again.”
If Kurine felt at all uncomfortable hearing such things about her parents, she didn’t show it. Her father was not surprised; surely the physicality of marriage was more palatable to her ears than the emotional aspects.
“In fact,” Jiomosu continued after a long pause, “she would barely tolerate my presence from then on. We had no day-to-day life together; it was as if we didn’t even live in the same palace. She treated me as coldly and professionally as an out-of-favor prince, moreso than she ever did before we were married. I didn’t even know she was pregnant until it became visible.”
He remembered the shock he’d felt the day after their wedding when Imau had met him at the door of their new suite for the express purpose if informing him that she was returning to her old chambers. “You may stay here or go back to your own, as you please,” she’d added, half pointedly, half indifferently. It hadn’t really been a surprise, but somehow… somehow he’d hoped things had changed.
“But I still loved her,” he went on. “I still love her even today.” He smiled slightly, wryly, the only warning he was willing to give Kurine that he was about to wax unnecessarily emotional. “After that… for years… the pain and the confusion and the questions I asked myself about what I could have done better… well, perhaps it’s better that I don’t detail all of that. I won’t even tax you with how I felt when she died. But when the labor was over and the doctor had given up hope of saving her, she didn’t turn me away. She talked to me more openly then than I think she did any other time.”
“Even after everything, we haven’t done too badly by the kingdom…” Somehow Imau hadn’t seemed entirely pleased to be making this acknowledgment — doubtless because it had almost been as if she were admitting that her court hadn’t actually disordered things too terribly during those frustrating years.
Jiomosu, at first, hadn’t been able to concentrate very hard on her meaning, distracted as he’d been by her use of ‘we.’ But eventually he’d felt compelled to reply, to defend her. “You’ve done Akomera nothing but good.”
“One wouldn’t think it was possible to be too loyal to the queen, but you do manage it. After how I’ve treated you…” And though her tone, devoid of energy, had been nearly emotionless as usual, he’d thought her a little disgusted with him.
“I…” He hadn’t really been able to continue. She had treated him badly, and he’d loved her in spite of it… and he hadn’t known what to make of her reaction to this.
“Perhaps I’ve been too hard on you,” she’d gone on, her volume dropping even further. “Neither of us could help our heritage or avoid our destiny, could we?”
“Did you want to?”
“That was why I was so hard on you, you know… because of what we are. It was inescapable.”
Recalling even part of that scene still brought tears abruptly to his eyes. Closing the latter, he sighed. “I’ve spent your entire life,” he addressed his daughter again, “trying to decide what I think of what I learned from her then.”
“And have you decided?” Kurine’s tone, as usual, was feelingless — but in this situation she wouldn’t be asking if she weren’t specifically interested. He thought he’d been right in omitting any account of the specific conversation that took place at Imau’s deathbed, however.
“I believe,” Jiomosu said slowly, “that she never stopped fearing. She was someone who thought every risk through thoroughly before she took it — a quality that made her an excellent queen, when she was allowed, and that makes her daughter an excellent queen now — and she’d been taught by the era, and how she was treated by her fathers and her court, that a ruler should be detached, that closeness with anyone was too great a risk for a queen to take. This built on her natural coldness and made her nearly unapproachable. During that last hour she accepted me, but I don’t believe she ever loved me.
“Maybe if she hadn’t been raised the way she was, or hadn’t become queen so young, hadn’t been informed by others whom she was going to marry, or hadn’t had the weight of the era on her shoulders, or…” He shook his head. “There are a dozen circumstances that may have caused things to go wrong, but I don’t know that they ever could have gone right. Maybe she and I were just…” And again he shook his head, with another wry smile.
Kurine was nodding slowly into the ensuing silence and looking steadily out the open window. “I believe they could have gone right,” she said flatly.
Jiomosu stared at her, not less because of her words and their implication than because, sitting there fixedly facing the aperture as if she were unwilling to look at him, she reminded him so much of Imau in the first controlled moments before the breakdown that night twenty-three years ago.
“Speaking as the queen whose regent you were and the daughter whose father you are,” Kurine went on very professionally, “I doubt that anyone could ask for a better husband.”
Jiomosu was frankly astonished, and not a little touched; he had no reply for this.
She stood, still not looking in his direction. “I understand now what they mean when they say I’m just like her; perhaps I can avoid her mistakes. Thank you.”
He didn’t have her restraint, and absolutely couldn’t stand to let it go at that. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I hope I’ve helped.”
She turned toward him at last, recognizing his prompt for what it was and seeming to calculate whether or not she would respond to it. Finally she did. “You have. It had never occurred to me that I might be afraid.” Though this was said in her usual collected tone, it didn’t seem to be an easy statement for her to make. “There were certain objections to the family, but none great enough to justify my level of hesitation. I understand now.”
“What family?” he asked, equally curious and hoping to ease her discomfort by talking business.
“Ryuuonmei, in Etoronai,” she replied. “Their nobility is in question.”
Jiomosu was somewhat surprised; he hadn’t realized she’d been going as far as Etoronai on her frequent journeys. He was also still vastly curious about the attributes of the member of said family that had managed to capture his daughter’s attention. But he kept to business. “It isn’t crucial for you to marry nobility,” he stated neutrally.
“I believe it is important at this point,” she replied, “at least not to marry a commoner. But a semi-noble family will suit my purposes.” She was obviously preparing to leave the room, quite possibly to plan her official suit of whatever heir of Ryuuonmei she had her eye on. Jiomosu couldn’t stand it.
“So who is this person?” he demanded, his tone conveying at once his awareness that she was under no obligation to tell him and that he was dying to know.
She paused in her movement toward the door. “The second daughter. Her name is Sukorie.”
That told him essentially nothing, and he couldn’t help being disappointed. But then the queen turned slowly, almost hesitantly (for Kurine), back to look at him again, just the barest hint of a smile on her face. “She sings like a green proxy,” she murmured, and he could hear a touch of admiration in her tone, subtle to match her smile. Then she was gone.
His heart was throbbing with pride and love for his daughter, whom he adored every bit as much as he had her mother… and with the pang of old wounds. Would Imau have smiled like that, almost as if under constraint; would she have given such high praise so nearly grudgingly, if she’d ever loved? She’d been so intelligent and perceptive; would she eventually have come to realize what her coldness was robbing her of, as her daughter had now done, if the birth of that same daughter had not robbed her of life?
But these questions could never be answered, and it was better not to aggravate the pains of the past. A more pressing question was whether Kurine would have better fortune with her Sukorie than Imau had had with Jiomosu. The latter wished with all his scarred heart that it might be so.
Somehow… perhaps trusting in the good will of the lady who’d granted someone a singing voice that could touch the untouchable daughter of the untouchable queen he’d loved and lost… he had the feeling that it would be.
This story takes place 261 years before Heretic’s Reward. It desperately needs editing, but it’s not bad.