The mirror in front of her was full of shadows.
Nakia narrowed her eyes at the darkened glass and at the carved gilded frame, her fists clenched at her sides. Yet the urge to prod and examine remained strong. In front of her the shadows swirled languidly, throbbed thickly.
Something in Nakia throbbed as well, viscous, humming, and when she looked down she found her hands smeared with a purple liquid.
It was dripping from her nose.
Tart at the back of her tongue.
Nakia almost staggered, but only the sheer force of muscle memory from years of training kept her rooted to the spot, as ghostly as a shadow. She gaped at her slick hands. Her head snapped up. The movement jostled the liquid pooling at the bow of her lip. Dribbled to her front teeth, kissed the inside of her lower lip. And then she caught a taste of it again, this time sweet, this time rich with a sort of drumming energy.
Bast? Nakia almost called out. Is it you, our Goddess? Are you flowing out of me, or should I still drink of you?
In front of her the mirror’s face pulsed with shadows. Whispered. Pulsed, and murmured.
There was a pulsing in Nakia as well.
A banging. Her heart was at her throat, mouthing at the clog of purple liquid at the back of her nose, choking her, banging. Pounding to get out, now, now, wake up right now.
“You have not slept well,” the queen mother noted. And not for the first time, added, “Have you considered making an appointment with the doctor?”
The morning sun was gleaming on the stained vibranium window. It brought a multicoloured beam of sunlight to the queen mother’s satin pillows and breakfast tray. It turned the queen mother’s locs from silver to champagne, slid down the open front of her silken bedrobe. Nakia glanced up and roved down appreciatively. She continued massaging oil onto the queen mother’s thighs and knees.
“I slept no longer than you have, Your Highness.”
The queen mother sipped her tea and said nothing for some moments.
Nakia knew that the queen mother had gone to the temple again and stayed there for the whole night, by turns kneeling, sitting, standing. It was a slight improvement. During that first year after the Mad Titan’s Snap, the queen mother had spent the nights haunting her children’s empty bedchambers and had peeled away the days haunting almost everywhere else, from the palace compound to Princess Shuri’s laboratory by Mount Bashenga to all the half-empty districts of Birnin Zana.
These poor feet.
Gently, Nakia draped one of the queen mother’s legs across her own lap and continued her ministrations. Such satiny skin. Such toned muscles.
At length the queen mother replied, “And what am I now? An old woman. Robbed of almost everything. You, however, still have duties to perform.”
“Your Highness is still a member of the regent council,” Nakia said mildly.
And Nakia herself was also robbed of almost everything.
“And you are the Black Panther.” Queen Ramonda sighed. She put her cup aside and reached to squeeze Nakia’s bare knee. “Wakanda needs all that’s left of us. Now more than ever. With all these –” her lips twisted “– changes. Change after change.” She sounded a touch tired. “You know this. Let yourself grieve, Nakia. It is a kindness to your soul.”
For a heartbeat, Nakia’s hands stilled on the queen mother’s legs.
Her heart was at her throat. Should she say something? Should she say it?
No, she decided on the next heartbeat.
Not this time. Wakanda needed all that was left of them. All of them who had not crumbled away into a nightmare. This stale new day had dawned bright, and Nakia had to stay collected.
After breakfast Nakia left the queen mother’s bedchambers and returned to her own, one of the rooms just beyond the Dora Milaje’s wing.
She opened the built-in wardrobe. It was barely half-full. Almost all her things were still in the River Tribe District, in a flat just across the cobbled street from her parents’ house. But Nakia couldn’t stand staying there for long, these days.
Briskly, she reached for a pair of linen trousers and started putting it on.
When she looked up again she found Erik Stevens reflected behind her shoulder.
This was not the first time.
That first time, Nakia’s heart had rocketed to her throat, closing it up, a roaring rush in her ears.
Now she just looked at him wearily.
But like that first time, Nakia dared not let herself turn around.
“You heard her,” Erik Stevens said. His voice was smoke rolling over shards of glass. “Let yourself. She lets you.”
“I did hear her the first time.”
A corner of his lips quirked up. His coat, though black as shadow, was threaded with gold. “See? Let yourself. Just like I’ve been telling you. This is exactly the right time.”
Nakia grabbed a green bra and resumed dressing at her usual pace. She adjusted the green straps and winced when the padding met her nipples. The queen mother’s mouth could be exacting, insistent.
“I mean,” Erik Stevens continued, “had I known that the universe would, you know, fold in on itself, I would’ve waited out those two years. Think about that, I was premature by just two fucking years after that decade of planning, just think about that. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. This is exactly the right time.” He ambled over to Nakia’s other shoulder, and the sunbeam from Nakia’s window fell on him. “Wished I’d known. But I’d never been a fan of space stuff. Sci-fi. Aliens. Face paint and bland jumpsuits. That sort. Fairy tales, on the other hand, fantasy, even –”
“Yes,” Nakia gritted out. “I heard you the first time.”
She slammed the wardrobe door shut.
There had been the first time, yes.
And another after. And after that, a few more.
Should she turn around next time?
What was the worst thing that could happen?
“What is the worst thing that could happen?” her mother used to ask, laughingly. “Go on, Nakia. Take a night off, you have studied enough.” And, her headscarf fluttering, she would swoop down to kiss Nakia’s forehead and give Nakia two gold coins for candy floss and little cakes.
Nakia could, in fact, think of every worst thing that might happen.
All the possibilities would swim in terrible delirium in her mind, lighting-quick, each worse than the last. But she had always ended up closing her books and taking Mama’s treats, and stepping out into the glittering sunlight, onto the pretty bustling main river.
The fear would recede. Nakia would have a theoretical solution to hand for each terrible thing, and she would clutch at all of them tightly like prayer beads, small hard beads of hope, until all of these melted at the back of her mind.
Until she could return to her books on the lands and seas east of Wakanda.
And the day would end with her in high spirits.
Nakia had always wanted to be either a diplomat or a War Dog.
Specifically, she’d hoped to be stationed in the regions east of Wakanda. Westward was of no interest to her. She’d studied books in advance, starting when she was eleven, even when the school held no sessions. The studying had been both play and work for her. She’d studied several languages too: Standard Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Farsi, Palestinian Arabic, Yemeni Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Kurdish, Urdu, Pashto, Hangul, Nihongo, Tagalog, Khmer, Bahasa Indonesia, and Bahasa Malaysia.
Nakia had been designated to appropriate regions long before she graduated as a War Dog.
Just as she’d been hoping for since she was eleven.
I heard you the first time.
The second time, Nakia had almost dropped her toothbrush.
The second time, leaning by the towel rack behind her right shoulder, Erik Stevens had said, “So that’s your first time in North America. And before you know it, dust. Ashes.”
The only other time she'd ventured westward was to Nigeria, that emergency mission she took on whilst on a break, right after King T’Chaka’s death.
“I didn’t warm up to the place,” she said shortly. “I never managed to.”
It had been his longest pause yet, just before she shut the bathroom light. Then: “Of course you didn’t. Because you understood.”
Baba had called her naïve, but Nakia liked to believe that she was hopeful.
The sun’s still shining, she’d thought after she fled the protest lines in another country, stumbling and reeling with the crowd, the air putrid and thick with cries. She’d thought of it as she huddled on a damp hospital bed, squinting through her bandage at the grubby window. She’d just finished her first ever War Dog assignment, basic surveillance, and she’d chosen to stay during her break. Some things couldn’t be unseen. Couldn’t be unknown.
It had been the start of her own little tradition.
The sun’s still shining, Nakia had thought as she slouched over a clunky keyboard, furiously typing up an op-ed. She'd got the upcoming issue’s foreign column in the national paper, and she’d been roiling with the things she’d seen: the plaintive cries for food, the wailing of starving war-ravaged throats, the sudden rain of batons and gas, the woman with the bloody leg and missing shoe Nakia had grabbed to safety. The violent overturning of governments, the killed radio journalists, the advancing tanks, the bullet-torn walls and uprooted trees, the clumps of families setting off to walk leagues through blocked and scorching roads and escape to the borders, to the sea, to some new nightmare.
She’d wondered if anyone would pay attention to the column, if anyone would listen and sympathise and try to do something. Most of all, she’d wondered what else could she do to elevate and magnify the voices of those she sought to help.
Nakia had had to pause typing to rest her forehead on one clammy palm. A headache. The sun had been pulsing through the flimsy curtains and she’d barely slept. Around here the sun could devastate just as efficiently as it could nourish. A miracle and a calamity both. Her tiny room had smelled of olives and lavash and coffee. Her desktop had been littered with leftover orange wedges, comforts from home, limp and lukewarm.
The sun’s still shining, Nakia had thought just a day after the Snap, standing at the empty street outside the Wakanda Social Centre in Oakland. She hadn’t warmed up to that country. The blazing brightness of the sky had made her eyes water and made the horizon glitter and waver. But Nakia could still see the horizon; there was still a place to go, and she could still do it. She had survived. Even when dusk had come Nakia was still reminded that the sun had to rise again, it had to.
And as long as Nakia could glimpse that horizon she could glimpse at herself. Steer herself. Even as her feet had started to ache, and her shoulders had started to droop, and she’d found herself crying more often, alone and in the shadows where it was safest to reassemble herself before another bright day.
And Nakia had thought of one more thing, back at home as she was being buried in the scarlet sands, the priestess’ chants lulling her, her mouth tingling with the heart-shaped herb: I cannot do this alone.
That time in the ancestral plane, Baba and Mama had not been there under the tree. T’Challa had also been absent.
Nakia had recognised two direct ancestors, some kings, some queens, some Black Panthers who’d never been monarchs, and King T’Chaka.
And Erik Stevens.
He’d already been standing over Nakia, upside down, as though peering at a particularly interesting garden plant. His coat’s hems were embroidered with gold, and even his skin seemed to be suffused with the light of the setting sun. He’d not been perched on the tree.
Nakia had sat up too quickly. The soil had cascaded down her kaftan. “What are you doing here?” she’d demanded.
“I was taking a walk.”
When she’d stared at him some more, Erik Stevens only laughed. It had sounded startlingly earnest. In that short time years before, she’d never had the chance to hear him laugh or see him smile. Nakia had felt like she was meeting him for the first time. And technically, that had been the case.
“Of course I’m here. I was Black Panther before you.” His grin had been almost friendly. But she hadn't missed the hard intensity in his eyes, the urge to prod and examine. He’d casually offered her a hand up. “And I was king. Nakia, isn’t it? The one who took me down from the shadows.”
Crumbling and tumbling and unearthing.
And nightmarish dust. The worst ashes.
Nakia had to keep herself together.
That first time, it had been right after the Black Panther ritual.
There had been scarlet sand still clinging to Nakia’s sweaty chest and forearms. Erik Stevens had been in the bath mirror, and Nakia had briefly closed her eyes, thinking that he was a residual from the ritual, another one of her heightened senses.
Or it could be that it nagged her, the fact that she’d brushed aside his proffered hand in the ancestral plane.
But he had been in her nightmares that night.
In the nightmare they’d sat cross-legged from across each other, and it was shattered and reassembled and shattered again by other bad dreams. Memories turned nightmare. Almost all of them from her time westward, most of them in Oakland.
Her car pulled over, the pallid face sweaty under the police hat. (“You know, I lost my aunt that way. She was my last relative after Baba.”) One youth regular at the Centre failing to show up for a week before they found out he’d been arrested for marijuana possession. May I see your ID, Ma’am. A death at the juice aisle in a grocery shop, mistaken death. Police cameras. You’re lucky you have an accent. (“Bullshit. Lucky in our community, maybe. My friend Belinda, her grandparents had accents. They still look black at a distance.”) In a city in the east coast one weekend, no African Braiding Salon for leagues and leagues. The youth with marijuana was now jailed. The prisons were full to bursting. Prisons were apparently a business. (“My mom was an assistant professor, did I tell you that? She met Baba at a protest for a killed student. She was arrested at a different protest. Excuse me, riot.”) Step over here, please. Plummeting value of properties in a once all-white neighbourhood. ("Belinda didn't smile often. She's like, the grumpy kid great in math. I was the teacher's pet. Most of the time.") Accidental death near a playground. (“My aunt, the one I mentioned, Mom’s sister. She’s also a teacher. You know what she told my kid self? How can you change something big if you’re all alone. She teaches so her students grow up to take action.”) The black character always died first in horror films. ("My aunt let me read anything from her shelves and let me ask all the questions I wanted to ask. When I was eight, I liked fantasy best. Magic, dragons. Heroes. Wakanda, even. The Black Panther.") That clerk was following her. The fresh fruits and vegetables seldom reached this district. Drive carefully, very carefully. Wear business clothes, no hoods, smile. (“Belinda stopped relaxing her hair when we were nineteen.”) You’re lucky you have an accent.
She never warmed up to that country.
It angered her.
A different sort of anger. An accumulation of anger from the east, westward. Wild. Unknown. Nakia dared not let herself open it. All her angers before had been collected and calculated, almost cool, just a slow dark-green pulsing. Not like this one which was rattling around where it was shut, palpably hungry to leap up.
Nakia’s eyes had been stinging in that nightmare. Her cheeks had been wet.
“You know of it, but you do not know.” Erik Stevens’ voice had been smoke rolling over shards of glass. “You see them, you feel sorry for them, for us, yeah? You feel terrible and sorry for the situation. And you can open that social centre. Or you can write those op-eds to attract NGOs and other human rights activists, then go back home afterwards. Leave it all behind. Well I lived it.”
“I was going to help,” Nakia had said. “I’ve always been trying to help. Even when it’s outside my parameters. Even when it’s nonexistent in my country’s prerogatives. I want to change things, I want to. Even when T’Challa –”
“Help?” Erik Stevens had snapped. “What I meant was legislations, sanctions, rulings, worldviews, status quo. Institutions and systems changed from the top, downwards. But those take eternity. That can of worms is too rotten and too deep.” His eyes were blazing. His voice was no longer smoke, but crackling, leaping fire. “I meant to take control of Wakanda’s weapons and just raze all the goddamned worms to the ground, can and rot and all. Cleanse it with fire. Then start over.”
The nightmare had swirled and throbbed, shattered and swirled. Erik Stevens' faces had been fanned out in front of Nakia: personable, thoughtful, keen, fiercely determined, intensely deliberate, earnest.
“I want to change things,” Nakia had repeated.
“So did I,” Erik Stevens had said, “So do I. I was just telling you.”
“Not like that. Not like how you’d do it.”
“I can’t see any other option. Now is the right time, I’m telling you. Strike now. Half the population gone, there must be scrambling. Calamities always bring change.”
Nakia decided to take a walk by the river that morning, after the wardrobe.
She loved walking.
She walked by the wilder banks, those banks far from the touristy trickle in Birnin Zana. Those banks far from the River Tribe District’s picturesque cobblestones, low arched bridges, and narrow gilt boats.
Those banks still carpeted by untrimmed grass. Shaded by trees with narrow leaves, fragrant with tiny yellow flowers. The river water here was mostly silent. A throbbing, pulsing greenness. Bamboos bent over it, whispering.
Nakia sat by a sunlit patch of grassy bank. The quiet magnified her drowsiness. She bent over the river as well. A nice sprinkle of water sounded a good idea.
A gleam of gold in the clear green water made her pause.
The sun, rippling on the river. Shattering then swirling into a semblance of wholeness. Nothing more. Nothing more. She hoped it would warm her. Nothing seemed to do the trick, since the Snap.
Nakia cupped her hand and leaned over to scoop it.
The splash of water made her face tingle. A viscous thrum. Pattered over her herb-heightened senses. Tugged at her eyelids, quivered on the tip of her nose, pattered on her lips, and pecked her neck, lightly on her own pulse.
And when Nakia reached over again, the rippling sun on the water reassembled into his face, swirled into hers, and settled again into the drowsy throbbing greenness.
Nakia pulled back. Glanced over her shoulder, down the quiet bank, to the distant tops of the quiet, stale-aired city. She dared not rummage into the waters. Not yet.
The third time had been a nightmare too.
In it was the ancestral tree, black against the purple sky.
Nakia was a frail, young branch far away from the roots.
But the roots were bleeding crimson, the soil dug by invisible spades. Centuries of ants and maggots and worms were emerging. The bark was flaying from the root up, the rot crawling unrelentingly, and Nakia was frantically trying to disengage from the tree, heaving and panting, but she could not. Try as she might, she could not escape. She was a branch. She was part of the tree. The only way was to be sawed off.
She was considering hacking off herself, splinter by splinter, when her eyes opened –
Queen Mother kissing Nakia's forehead. Her eyelids. Her lips.
The queen mother had come back from her hauntings.
Faintly fragrant kisses. Plush with the hints of rich cream, fruit, sugary little cakes. Drowsily, Nakia smiled. These were gentler, less urgent than those from last evening, when they'd knocked over a blue vase and Nakia had torn the sheet in ribbons, had made love to the queen mother's satiny skin and toned muscles with her hungry mouth. Had eaten and been eaten and been sated, but had still fallen into a fitful, leaden sleep.
This morning Nakia's chin was tilted with one firm finger, and on it she smelled incense, orchids, ashes.
Let yourself, the queen mother said, her eyes intent.
Nakia decided to take a walk by the river the next day. She wanted to see the eastern skies transform from ashy pre-dawn to gentle golds and vibrant pinks.
The carved gilded mirror was gone.
In its place was a vastness of green. Flimsy. Like thinned blood. Somehow Nakia was aware that this had always been the wall behind the mirror full of shadows.
Nakia’s fists were clenched at her sides. A tremor through them passed. The urge to prod and examine, strong as ever.
Slowly, Nakia unfurled her right fist.
She reached for the wall. Palm open. Fingers stretched. Her shadow bloomed, reaching back. Only it was the shape of the Black Panther, with its claws. Only the arm was two breadths too wide, the hand bigger.
Prayer beads of hope, small, hard.
The unknown sort of anger. Accumulated.
Splinter by splinter.
Some things couldn’t be unseen. Couldn’t be unknown.
They both wanted the same thing, Nakia and Stevens. The methods, though, they could rearrange later on. Debate, argue, compromise perhaps. Besides Nakia could stand on her own if it came to a fight. She was the Black Panther. And they wanted the same thing.
Ashes. Aliens. Scarlet sands and beloved souls unaccounted for. Anything was possible. Absolutely anything. Now was the right time.
Yes, Nakia told herself. Yes.
The wall was soft in her hand. She gathered it into her palm, creasing, crumpling, and slowly but surely she peeled it aside with her Panther Claws.
Erik Stevens’ Panther Claws were gold. Viscous sunlight.
Only the crumpled, thinned-blood wall separated his left fist from Nakia’s right. Nakia took a moment, took a deep breath, before raising her eyes to meet his own.