By J. R. Dawson
She was a princess and he was a prince, and they had been genetically made for each other. The science had been precise down to their anatomical make-up, the blood and the speed in which that blood pulsed through their perfectly symmetrical hearts.
His name was Almahdi. He had been named this because of the way the consonants and vowels hit the shape of her ear. Her name was Nozizwe, because she would indeed be the mother of nations. They would meet at a grand ball on the space station, in the neutral zone between their two new colony kingdoms, in their eighteenth year. So that meant, while other children got to spend their first eighteen years enjoying their robo-dogs and trying to set their parents’ fireproof space suits aflame and going to camp on the moon, the prince and the princess did nothing fun. In fact, their daily activities were about as far from fun as daily activities could get.
“You were made out of love,” Nozizwe’s father, the King, instructed her — age three — from his throne. “Therefore, you must love. Now, what does it mean to love, Nozizwe?”
Nozizwe, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, farted loudly.
“Take this seriously, Nozizwe!” he said to the three-year-old.
But as she grew, she understood her need of love was created out of fear. “This cannot be like Earth,” her father, the King, told her mother. “This cannot fail.”
To clarify what that meant, to not be like Earth: Earth was a total shit storm, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, Earthlings numbered about nine billion and had never figured out how to share a living space without murdering each other. Literally, Earthlings had gotten so bad at war and thunking each other dead, that the environs had started to fail as well, and soon there were grand tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis, and with the over-abundance of refugees and under-abundance of facilities, the Great Shit Storm of the Rusted Era took place and to most was the mark of Earth’s end.
So it made sense when the King said, “This cannot be like Earth.”
But this was a lot of pressure on Nozizwe. She could not screw this up. Everyone else had done their part. The doctors in Almahdi’s colony kingdom had him born at midnight exactly six months before she was born. Her mother’s doctors delivered her at six p.m. right on time, six months later. The two babies had scents lathering their cribs so when they finally saw one another, they would smell their own childhoods.
To prepare them for their meeting, they were told in great detail what the others’ strengths were, and when news came of Almahdi’s weakness at the sword, Almahdi was taught finer arts such as sewing, and Nozizwe was taught hand-to-hand combat and feminist ideals. When Nozizwe showed a love for food, Almahdi was taught how to cook good meals, and Nozizwe was taught how to say, “Thank you.” Nozizwe started to enjoy flowers, so Almahdi was taught all their names. When Almahdi decided he enjoyed silk clothes, Nozizwe received silk bed sheets and silk dresses she could only wear on happy occasions.
There were other more sinister things that had taught Nozizwe she couldn’t trust anything given to her in life. There was a boy named Bangizwe when Nozizwe was thirteen, and he loved her and broke her heart and that was her first kiss (it was quite bad, but that’s what made it so great). Once Bangizwe had come and gone, Nozizwe started to suspect something was awry. She said to her father, the King, “I was never to be with Bangizwe, because I am to be with this boy named Almahdi. So why was I allowed Bangizwe?”
“Bangizwe was supposed to come and go,” the King said. “Let’s hope this Almahdi is a better kisser, eh?” He nudged her.
Nozizwe did not nudge back. Nozizwe left the castle for the afternoon in a fury.
She knew Almahdi would be a better kisser because Bangizwe kissed so poorly, any other kiss would be magic. Nozizwe even suspected Almahdi had the premier kissing instructor in all the land to help him on his technique.
Which was a fair… and true… assumption. The maestro’s name was Flavius and he was paid in golden swans. He was a beautiful boy who brought lip-shaped pillows for Almahdi to try.
While Nozizwe became distrustful of all things good, Almahdi became more excited with every passing year. Every September, the pre-anniversary to their first meeting, he would ask his mother to give him a hint about the girl he would love.
“She is a stubborn girl, I hear,” his mother, the Queen, said. “But she is beautiful. And she enjoys music, just as you do.”
“I hope I can sing for her,” Almahdi said, although that was the one talent he could not perfect. His vocal coach was the best in the land, and it did not matter. He still sounded like a dying parrot.
“For the best if you don’t,” his mother, the Queen, said.
Nozizwe didn’t have to ask for clues. Her father, the King, could not shut up about Almahdi.
“He’s handsome and he’s smart and he is everything you’ve ever wanted!”
“You mean everything you’ve made me want,” she corrected him.
“Why yes, I… er, what was that question again?”
The eighteenth year finally came. They both flew up to the space station to the neutral zone. The doors opened. They saw each other. She immediately recognized him. She really didn’t have any choice in the matter.
This unveiling was just a bunch of pomp and circumstance. Maybe, Nozizwe thought, if they’d just met on the street or in her colony kingdom’s port market, then it would have felt right. But there would be no real meeting. There was this grand ball and a dance.
Nozizwe wore a blue silk dress. She wore the perfume given to her, the sort that smelled like his crib, and she waited in front of a mural of strong women at the top of the stairs.
Almahdi entered from the dark hall, mysterious, wearing his own robes. He looked just like in the books Nozizwe used to read as a child. His black bangs fell in his face, perfectly orchestrated.
But they didn’t get to speak through the dance because they had a whole dog and pony show to do. They instead spoke with their eyes because the same inside jokes had been fed to them, and so they laughed when Nozizwe pretended to stuff cake in her mouth, and they nodded in agreement when Almahdi rolled his eyes at the seventieth wedding song that played. But then her father, the King, and his mother, the Queen, rushed at them during a dance and said, “You shape up! Stop laughing! Take this seriously! We could all die!”
So Almahdi turned to Nozizwe and said, “I love you.”
But Almahdi hadn’t even heard Nozizwe’s voice say a full sentence, and although her vocal chords had been constructed to sound just like a beautiful instructor he once fantasized about, although yes he would indeed love her, he couldn’t have loved her, not yet.
And Nozizwe, being Nozizwe, started to wonder if she even wanted him to love her.
“It’s just that … now hear me out, I know you’re going to interrupt me … but we’ve never known each other. And I understand we have an obligation to our subjects to try, but don’t you think you could get to know me?” Nozizwe said.
Almahdi nodded. “Of course. But I already know you’re the perfect Queen for me. We’re fated, you see. Quite literally. And seeing as our colony kingdoms are betting on this working out, you know …”
“Kiss me, then,” Nozizwe said. She wanted it to be sloppy and real, she wanted Almahdi to lean into her and feel and she wanted to feel him, really feel him.
But as she feared, it was only a perfect kiss. As if a man named Flavius had taught him how to kiss pillows every day for the last seven years.
The courting began, and Nozizwe was miserable. And this made her more afraid, and that fear shuddered through the walls and into her bones. This wasn’t only about her. None of this was only about her.
She’d heard of Earth. And she and he had been born to love, just to love, that’s all they needed to do. It had been her whole life, learning to love Almahdi, and now she couldn’t.
Perhaps she could leave the colony kingdoms and find an undiscovered extraterrestrial planet and become a DJ.
But the hole kept getting deeper and deeper. They moved in together. They started preparing for the wedding. Almahdi was in her space every night. Every morning, the two had to sit in the garden and listen to how they would combine their colony kingdoms to start a better civilization. In the afternoon, they toured the stratosphere. Her life changed. And of course she’d been warned how fast it would switch gears, but here she was not able to read books or work with her sword and those damn silk gowns showed sweat so easily so she couldn’t even sweat. They were both doused in perfume, and it choked her.
“Well, if it’s too much perfume, we can tell them less,” Almahdi said. “They said this was the proper amount.”
They said they said they said. That’s all Almahdi said.
Every evening, Almahdi had to do something nice for her, and she had to do something nice for him. At night, before they went to bed, they had to stare into each other’s eyes for thirty minutes without looking away while they asked deep questions like, “What is your greatest fear?”
“We are programming your brains,” her father, the King, said.
Like she was a robot. She wasn’t a robot. Or was she? Her entire body had been carefully planned, assembled, cultivated, programmed. Just because her parts were made of flesh didn’t make her a human.
After three months of wedding planning, Nozizwe looked at Almahdi from across the table. Almahdi ate some good vegetables and gave a big smile. She didn’t love him.
The tipping point was later that day as they strolled through her colony’s port, flanked by their entourage and wedding planners and parents and journalists. Colony kingdom journalists were the worst because they wanted this marriage to work the most. So when they were around, Nozizwe and Almahdi’s rules became even worse: no sneezing, no eye contact with anyone else; only kind, hushed tones to one another; and no disagreements. But then Nozizwe saw a couple across the street, next to a flower stand.
There was a young man and a young woman and they were finding flowers for each other. She was imperfect, she had a fat chin. He was imperfect, he was skinny and weak-looking. But he said something to her sarcastically — sarcasm, what a thing — and she snorted and poked him. Love.
“I’m sorry,” Nozizwe said. “Almahdi, look over there. What do you see?”
“The flower stand?” Almahdi said. “He’s getting her flowers?”
“They’re getting each other flowers,” Nozizwe said.
“He said something to her that seems a little mean, although I can’t hear but … she is glaring at him.”
“She’s joking with him,” Nozizwe said.
“I suppose?” Almahdi said, although the anxiety grew in his chest that perhaps it wasn’t a joke and that young man had just ruined everything in his relationship and maybe even in Almahdi’s relationship.
“I don’t think this is working,” Nozizwe said.
“What do you mean?” Almahdi said.
“You can’t honestly say you love me,” she said.
“Of course I can. Do you not love me?”
“We don’t laugh.”
Almahdi immediately started laughing loudly. “Ha ha?”
“But I laughed.”
But Nozizwe was watching the flower stand couple. The young man was singing to the young woman, grabbing her around her waist, and she smiled and sang with him. It was a dumb song, and they were both horribly off-key, but it was real.
“You don’t sing to me,” Nozizwe said.
“My singing is atrocious,” Almahdi said.
“I don’t care. I like music. Please sing.”
“They say I shouldn’t.”
“Almahdi!” Nozizwe snapped.
Almahdi stopped in his tracks, which meant his entourage and wedding planners and parents and journalists stopped as well, like a seizing accordion.
“Yes, darling?” Almahdi said.
Nozizwe took a deep breath. “Almahdi,” she said. “You cannot honestly say you know who I am and that you feel anything for me. Out of everyone in the universe, this is the best you can do?”
With all honestly, Almahdi said, “I can.”
And with an equal amount of honesty, Nozizwe said, “I can’t.”
She could see this hurt Almahdi deeply. Almahdi’s entire life was Nozizwe, and his heart broke in front of her. That night, while they were forced to look into each other’s eyes, he said, “I can leave for a bit. I’ll go visit the spaceship circuit. Maybe the moon. Maybe the distance will make us appreciate what we have.”
So he left, and Nozizwe’s own heart cracked a bit. She was surprised at that.
The first night she went to bed alone, it was nice to have the whole mattress to herself. She tried not to think of Almahdi, because every time she did, she felt anxious and threw her face in her pillow to scream. She had to love Almahdi, or they would hate each other and wage war and the colony kingdom would burn and there would be no more toilets. That’s really the mark of a failed colony kingdom.
“Ma’am?” A shadowy voice came from outside the window.
She jumped out of bed and ran to the balcony. “What the hell are you doing in my garden?”
“I’ve come here of my own accord,” he said in a sound that was gravel. He really needed something for his throat. “I just wanted to speak with you. I won’t come any closer, I promise.”
The man was shrouded in darkness. But she would have to be dumb not to see that it was Almahdi, dressed ridiculously in a black cloak and mask and trying to make his voice sound mysterious.
He sounded like he’d gotten stuck upwind of a bonfire.
“Are you serious?” Nozizwe said. “Do you take me as absolutely stupid or just a regular amount of gullible?”
“I … Princess,” Almahdi stammered. “Just let me do the thing, okay?”
Nozizwe sighed. “Oh whoever it is! A strange stranger of mystery!”
“I heard you crying and just wanted to make sure you were all right!” He cleared his throat. “That hurts. In the old country, back on Earth -–”
“Ah, we have a back story now. Earth, is it?”
“Yes. Abu Dhabi.”
“Specific. How did you land on Abu Dhabi?”
“It’s the only Earth place I could remember.”
“I’m surprised you know any of them, considering it wasn’t a part of the courting tutoring.”
“You are ruining this.”
The cloaked man cleared his throat. “When my sister cried at night, we would sit at the window and look out to the Great Pyramids –-”
“Not Abu Dhabi.”
“We would sit at the window and look out to the Amazon Jungle.”
“Still not Abu Dhabi.”
“We would look at Abu Dhabi! And I would sing her a song and she felt much better. I could just stand here and I could sing to you? Could I do that for you? I won’t see you and you won’t see me.”
“You’re going to sing to me?”
“I’m going to do something that some would not call singing, but yes.”
And so he sang. It was a horrible singing voice. But it was real.
She fell asleep to that voice.
The next night, she stayed up for him. He came again.
“Later this time,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“I didn’t know if you wanted me to return. This whole thing is sort of silly, I mean …”
“Sing again,” she said. “It’s hard to sleep.”
“I never thought Princess Nozizwe of New Ulundi needed anyone to sleep.”
“I don’t,” Nozizwe said. “Now come to my chambers and sing. Don’t turn on the lights. Stay in the shadows, oh Abu Dhabian rogue.”
So he sang again. It was a sad song, an ugly song, but there was a warm feeling in the way his voice cracked, and he said, “No, I’m done,” and she said, “No, go on, I love it.”
The next night came, and then another.
Finally, Nozizwe said, “Why do you love me?”
The rogue not-Almahdi Almahdi said, “Because if you really ever love me, it will be because you’ve thought about it on your own time.”
Nozizwe turned on the lights. “Almahdi?” she gasped dramatically. “How could it be?”
“I shouldn’t have picked such a stupid outfit,” he said. “Is it okay if I can’t sing, Nozizwe?”
She laughed. “Is it okay if I wear regular clothes? Is it okay if I’m not always sure about us?”
They supposed, between the two of them, no human was perfect. And they called off their wedding the next morning.
The colony kingdoms went into an uproar, certain the bloodshed of their grandparents was right around the crumbling corner. Their fathers and mothers, the Kings and Queens, screamed at them to wear perfume. Nozizwe decided she didn’t ever want to wear silk again and threw her wardrobe away. Sometimes Almahdi made a fantastic meal, and sometimes Nozizwe would win their sword fights. Nozizwe was never good at making clothes, and Almahdi wove her beautiful baskets she pretended to enjoy. He still couldn’t stop loving her, and she still couldn’t stop worrying. But the colony kingdoms kept on without doomsday.
Here’s the important part: every night, he sang to her. Every night, she held him although her arm fell asleep. And that is what matters.
About the Author
Dawson has been published in F&SF, DSF, Escape Pod, and has a forthcoming story in Lightspeed in 2020. She lives in Omaha with her spouse and three dogs, where she works for The Rose Theater and Nebraska Writers Collective. She’s currently working with the Institute for Holocaust Education and Circle Theatre on a new play, “When We Go Away.”
About the Narrator
Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV. His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is a best seller on Audible.com.