“Listen to this, brother,” Shuri said. “‘Despite the theories espoused in’—espoused! The nerve of it! And it isn’t even a proper disagreement, she relegates it to a footnote, no, a subclause in a footnote, I have never seen such effrontery in all my life.”
“Ah, yes,” T’Challa said. “All your long, long life.”
“This is not a laughing matter. She goes so far as to call me the princess of Wakanda.” She considered her point made.
T’Challa was looking at her with the smooth, reserved expression he used to wear at UN assemblies: he tried that on her? Bast, she was the one who had helped him practice it through a thousand dull family dinners. I am paying attention to you, the look said, and I recognize that you think I am good only as an audience for your words. I am too polite to tell you otherwise, but I am laughing at you in my head. Shuri smacked his arm, which at least shook the noble forbearance out of him.
“Unless I have missed a coup,” T’Challa said, a shadow flickering briefly across his eyes, “another coup, Shuri, that is only accurate. You are the princess of Wakanda.”
She exhaled. “You don’t understand academics.”
“Evidently I do not.”
Shuri folded her arms. “Concede that you understand the rudeness of her refutation of my entire last paper being placed offhanded in a footnote.”
“I suppose she might have given your work more of her time, even when disputing it.”
“Yes. Thank you. And by breezily taking the time only to engage with my paper by calling me the damned princess of Wakanda, she’s purposely implying that I have no merit of my own. That any spotlight on my work comes only because of my rank.”
“You’re reading a lot into a word,” T’Challa said gently.
Shuri shook her head. “This is war.” She looked at the tablet again and wrinkled her nose. “Also she’s… right, apparently. Shit.”
Durah didn’t know what she had expected from sideswiping Princess Shuri’s research in her last paper—cut funding, perhaps, or a chorus of accusations from her colleagues that her recklessness was going to get them all turned out on the street—but this was certainly not it.
Shuri had published a thoughtful elaboration of Durah’s own work.
There wasn’t so much as a breath of refutation, Shuri had accepted her premises completely, but she had worked out each idea so thoroughly that she made Durah’s initial paper look hasty and half-baked. Durah had not thought to talk about how this new integration of vibranium into biotechnology could shape the use of artificial limbs, but Princess Shuri had; she had not done the calculations on how increased mining would impact the long-term stability of Wakanda’s resources, nor gone on from that to revise their current programs for recycling used vibranium. She had certainly not gone on to publish a poignant, reflective personal essay on the notion of Wakanda’s distinction and advancement being unavoidably tied up with a single, exclusively-held state asset.
But Princess Shuri, of course, had done all of that. In what felt like the amount of time it had taken Durah to get out of bed that morning.
It was brilliantly annoying. It was annoyingly brilliant.
More than anything it was, she knew people would say, an example of the royal family taking the high road, may Bast shower them with all good fortune. Her dismissal of Shuri’s earlier paper wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, and everyone who had noticed it and whispered about it would now be talking in glowing terms about how Shuri had responded to her with generosity and grace. As though the precious Shuri were above the ordinary scratching and clawing of academics who could sometimes put the Dora Milaje to shame.
Fuck that. Durah knew exactly what this was. (Besides a prescient bit of work that might recalibrate how Wakanda developed technologically from this point on, yes, sure.) This was “I’m smarter than you” written out one thousand times.
Well, it was entirely possible that Shuri was smarter than she was, but that didn’t mean Durah had to concede it, let alone this easily.
She’d say this much: she liked that Princess Shuri had responded in kind. It meant she had read Durah’s paper in the first place and been alert to its nuances—to, well, its slights—and that she had bothered to invest herself in answering it. Not with a heartless stomp, leveling Durah’s lab and prospects, but with good old-fashioned spite and passive-aggressive science.
In a single publication, Shuri had made Durah’s childish, unfounded resentment into a legitimate rivalry. It was almost enough to make her heart glow.
But what to do to answer it?
“The thing is to be respectful,” Durah said, pacing back and forth. “You give your enemy the dignity of your attention—that’s what she did with me, and fair cop to me not having done it with her the first time, all right, I’ll admit that much. I won’t insult her again.”
“I am begging you to leave me out of this,” her colleague Nduta said. She didn’t even look up from her screen. “Don’t involve me in your schemes to depose the royal family or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve here.”
“Well, not that, certainly. Who would have the time? And I am not involving you in my schemes, I am just… scheming near you.”
“While I’m trying to work?”
“You’re not working,” Durah said. It was a gamble. Nduta did obviously sometimes work, but she also had the habit of playing online word games whenever she was stalled and she had been looking fixedly at her computer screen mouthing things at it before Durah had interrupted her.
“All right, I’m not working. What’s a five letter English word for obsession?’
“That’s too vague,” Durah said. “That’s an appalling crossword clue.”
“It isn’t on my crossword. It’s on your face. C-r-u-s-h.”
“I do not have a crush on Princess Shuri.”
“The most eligible young woman in Wakanda,” Nduta said.
“The most eligible young woman in Wakanda, yes, and one of the few scientists of my generation with my own capabilities, fine, and very pretty and very fit, but also an insufferable know-it-all whom everyone defers to because she happens to be a princess.”
“How do you know she’s an insufferable know-it-all?”
Durah scoffed. “Have you read these papers of hers?”
“Not my field,” Nduta said.
“I’m sure she’s dabbled in your field. I’m sure she’s dabbled in everyone’s field. She takes the holistic approach so far she devours all knowledge indiscriminately. And—what’s worse—she’s good at it. She just sweeps in, all glory and sparkling wit and unlimited resources, and gets done in a week what the rest of us can’t put together in a year.” She paused. “And also we were at junior science camp together when we were twelve and she spilled her whole glass of pineapple ginger juice on me—”
“Oh, I understand now,” Nduta said, returning to her word game. “You’re mad. You should have explained that earlier.”
Durah Ndegwa: Shuri remembered her now. She’d had to look up a picture of her—why did the university that housed her lab not have the good sense to put her photo on their website? Some people did not understand how to promote their staff—but then she knew her at once. She wore her hair in long locs studded periodically with colored beads; she had wide-set cheekbones and a narrow chin that gave her a nearly perfectly heart-shaped face. Shuri knew that face.
“You,” she said, tapping her desk. “You were at the festival before the coronation. I was going to ask you to dance, I think, but this is much better.”
It was Durah’s move now, so Shuri waited—waited with an impatience that surprised her. She kept busy, obviously, tinkering with T’Challa’s suit and running tests on the rail system, but her heart was elsewhere.
If she were a tad preoccupied, she certainly received no comfort from her brother, who seemed to pause his running of the country only long enough to stop by her lab, poke at the developing prototype for his next suit, and say, “There’s no chance this will explode or constrict suddenly and squeeze the life out of me, I hope?”
“Why should it do that? Now, depending on how much you tease me…”
“You’re distracted,” T’Challa said with all the lofty kindness of an older brother who had entirely forgotten that Shuri knew what he was like with his girlfriend. “If your concentration isn’t up to snuff—”
So then Shuri spent an entire week designing new laser-emitting signet rings for him entirely to prove she could. It was intense precision-work and she was rewarded for it by having the next dance step materialize once she was done.
Durah Ndegwa had zigged where Shuri might have expected her to zag: she had submitted a thorough, thoughtful sponsorship proposal to the throne.
“I won’t push the council to decline this just because of this rivalry you have going on,” T’Challa said.
“Decline it? Why should they ever decline it? This is brilliant. If they decline it, I’ll have to dip into my treasury and fund it myself.”
“I don’t understand why you are in any way feuding with this woman when you clearly admire her.”
“Why would I waste my time feuding with someone I didn’t admire?” Shuri said reasonably. “Besides, it’s fun. I admit, my feelings were hurt at the beginning, but she’s clearly come around, she’s treating me as an honorable opponent. And this—this is brilliant.”
“So you said.”
“No, brother.” She sighed. “Then I meant the ideas. Now I mean the way she has appointed herself as the champion of my ideas, demanding that we fund her research into the theories that I put forward in the first place. And it would mean her coming to the capital and working out of our space—a clear move on my territory, such as it is. Forcing me to confront her in person.”
“Yes,” T’Challa said dryly. “You sound terribly upset about that.”
“I’ll just ignore you if you’re not going to contribute anything useful,” Shuri said, waving her hand at him. “I’ll need to respond in some way, of course.” She grinned. “I’ll send her a card welcoming her to the city and volunteering myself as her guide.”
“There. That’s very good of you.”
“Good of me? Honestly, T’Challa. It’s an obvious dig at her provincial little lab.”
“It’s the second-largest lab in the country.”
“Ah! So it is. Second-largest. Besides, she’s been here before, and now I’m pretending not to know it. And then also I’ll get to take her around and show her the waterfalls and some of the best places in the market, that will be a real joy.”
T’Challa kissed her on the forehead. “Other people simply ask a person to dinner.”
“And when have I ever wanted to be other people?”
Durah ought to have had too much self-respect to accept Shuri’s offer to serve as her tour guide. She ought to have too much respect to accept her fully-funded-with-stipend sponsorship at all—the real crushing victory would have come from declining the money with feigned regret. Oh, many apologies, thank you so much for your kind attention and support, but I have already had the project funded from another benefactor. Except that would have been extraordinarily rude, because it would mean that she hadn’t withdrawn her proposal the moment she had known: she would come out looking worse for it. And also it would have been staggeringly impractical, since she obviously didn’t have outside funding.
But the least she could have done was haughtily tell Princess Shuri that she knew the capital very well.
But that would just be the typical, expected move, wouldn’t it? It was a plain and simple rebuff, when a real answering exchange drew your opponent closer in. Now, to accept Shuri’s offer with every appearance of real gratitude…
“Is it possible,” Nduta said, watching Durah gather up her supplies for the move, “that you are just going on a date?”
“No,” Durah said, pausing to examine her earrings in the shiny side of one of the equipment cabinets, “you’re looking at it all the wrong way. Who would move halfway across the country and upend her career just for a chance at a date with a princess? No matter what kind of fine mind the princess had—”
“Or how pretty she was.”
“—or how pretty she was. But any self-respecting scientist would love the chance to collaborate with her only real peer.”
“Thanks,” Nduta said, going back to her crossword puzzle with a definite wrinkle of her nose. “I’ll miss you too.”
“Oh, you aren’t in my field,” Durah said, shooing this objection away.
“Neither is Shuri.”
“Shuri is in everyone’s field, that’s part of why she is so frustrating.”
“Mm. You’ve mentioned that. Several times.”
“My only real competition in my own fucking field is a dilettante princess who still manages to be more brilliant than most people who devote their whole lives to their work.”
“I love hearing you talk at nineteen about devoting your entire life to anything,” Nduta said. “It’s like hearing a mayfly buzz its little opinions at me. You and Princess Good-at-Everything deserve each other.”
“Exactly,” Durah said, lifting her chin.
And then there she was.
Shuri had changed the style of her braids roughly a dozen times that morning and by the time Durah was escorted into her lab, she wore them in a carefully-arranged pile atop her head—her mother had said it would draw attention to her neck, which Shuri pointed out was not exactly what one wanted to do in the presence of a fierce opponent, but which she had somehow gone for nonetheless. She felt heat race up every inch of her exposed throat when she finally saw Durah Ndegwa in person.
Durah wore her locs down loose around her shoulders, which were broader than Shuri had remembered: she had strong arms and could almost have been a Dora. Okoye, who had escorted her down to the lab—wishing no doubt to continue the fine tradition of teasing her royal family about their crushes—actually looked a little begrudgingly impressed, and Okoye did not generally think much of scientists’ physiques.
Shuri swallowed and then smiled as dazzling a smile as she could manage. “Welcome to the heart of Wakanda.”
Okoye closed her eyes as if to say she couldn’t watch this, obligations to Wakanda be damned.
Durah smiled back at her, though. She wore gold lipstick, which made any smile dazzling regardless of its intent. “Thank you. We in the rest of the country do sometimes fool ourselves about that, but it’s hard to quarrel with the majesty of the capital. And of course the royal lab is magnificent.”
Ah, so they were beginning to spar already. Shuri’s false smile became a real grin. “But it’s not really the royal lab, you know, because it was here way before I came along. No, I’m afraid my brother wouldn’t give me such toys just because I asked. Straight arrow that he is, he insisted I earn them.”
And on it went: dance, dance, dance.
She showed Durah around the lab and it was, admittedly, hard at various points to ascertain exactly who was winning the conversation and exactly what the nature of the competition even was, when Durah had her hands buried in colored kinetic sand and was shaping and activating it, when Shuri was showing her the latest Black Panther suit update and got to temporarily sheathe herself—for science, naturally—in the costume that seemed to take Durah’s breath away. (And coincidentally Shuri’s own, since it had constricted a little too tight around her ribs.)
Eventually Okoye had to point out that Shuri had promised Durah dinner and it was coming up on nine o’clock.
“There’s still a quarter of the lab left to see!” Durah said. “Shuri, can’t we just order in?”
Okoye exhaled. “Most of the cooks have no doubt left for the evening, but if the two of you promise to stay here, I’ll go and bring you back something. There’s a hole in the wall that does good peanut goat stew, they’ll be open until at least midnight.”
“That sounds perfect,” Shuri said, though in truth she couldn’t care less if the stew came back cold and half-congealed: the important thing was that the dance not stop. She separated one of the beads from her bracelet and passed it over to Okoye. “Use my account.”
“Oh, you can be sure I will,” Okoye said. In a lesser woman, that would have been a roll of the eyes. “Enjoy all this.”
Even though she had hardly spoken, the lab was quieter without her. Shuri was very aware of being alone with Durah, like some scanner was registering everything about their bodies: the rising temperature of her skin, the quickened beat of her pulse, the exact distance between the two of them, the notes of perfumed oil hanging in the air. She looked at the tiny, fine hairs on the back of Durah’s wrist as Durah laid one hand on the cooling panel of T’Challa’s suit. On Shuri’s stomach, more or less.
She had forgotten to remove it. Well. She had convincingly pretended to forget.
“This is very impressive,” Durah said, an actual frown on her face. Shuri couldn’t think of a single ulterior motive to it.
It was time to risk straightforwardness.
“I cannot believe you put me in a footnote,” Shuri said.
“It was very wrong of me,” Durah agreed at once.
“I devoted an entire paper to you.”
“It isn’t as though I kept on ignoring you. I developed this entire program in response—I hitched my career and reputation to yours for what might well be all of time. Be reasonable, Shuri.”
“I would rather not,” Shuri said, with all the autocratic dignity she felt she was owed at this exact moment, and she leaned across that mappable distance between them and kissed Durah Ndegwa.
Durah’s mouth was hot and the gold lipstick was as slippery-smooth as satin, making Shuri feel like it was difficult to get a purchase on her. She leaned forward further and let Durah lean into her, let Durah’s strong, wide hand come down on her hip and pull her close. The suit heightened the sensations of Durah’s hands on her body, made her conscious of each pressure point and gradation of heat. All that kinetic energy being stored. Shuri suddenly had very many impractical and unmarketable ideas for this suit that T’Challa would never approve of but that she thought she might quietly put into practice anyhow, on her own time and terms.
When it came to inspiration, nothing did the trick like a rival.