The Princess of the People, Told by Starlight by L.P. Melling
2022 February | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
The last story Edith ever hears is spoken softly by her 15-year-old son. She listens from her bed as her breathing weakens and the monitor readings drop.
“There was a time when an emperor’s iron rule cast the planet in shadow, draining its resources for greed and power,” Jacob tells her. “Millions of families perished in wildfires and flooding at his merciless reign, with survivors left to beg for food. Until one day a young princess, witnessing years of cruelty at his hands, used her position to change the future.
“Her life started with riches that only embarrassed and angered her when she saw people suffering, whether those from her kingdom or from the other smaller territories. Though her mother forbade it, the princess gave away fine food and clothing to those who needed it.” Jacob’s lips twist into a wry smile as he smooths out his mother’s bedsheet. “But this only made her embarrassed too when people told of her kindness, for everything she gave away was never truly hers.”
Edith coughs, and Jacob raises a cup of water to her lips. A strand of nutbrown hair rests on her cheek, and her wrinkled arms are the greens and blues of her homeworld, frail from years of trying to save it before it withered away. The private medical cabin is clinically bare but for the holo pictures of Earth and his father on her bedside table. She takes a sip and nods at him to continue.
“When the princess’s mother found out about her charity, she begged her daughter to stop, and if she couldn’t do that, at least keep it hidden for the sake of the kingdom.
“So the princess grew more careful, ensuring that what was given was not linked back to her, using only her most trusted servants, who were her real family and only company in the vast halls of rich tapestries and false words.”
Jacob takes a sip of water himself. He never knew court life and is glad of that. “However, the Emperor had spies everywhere, spider webs in every corner of the kingdom and soon ensnared one of her servants. The princess begged for his release, and the emperor said he would do so only if she admitted it was her who gave the undeserving food and clothing that did not belong to her.”
Jacob sees his mother’s stare is lost in the story now. “She bowed to his demand, but never did she bend her knee to him. Stating she would do it again a thousand times if it helped the climate refugees. The emperor gave her a dark, mirthless smile, and had the servant beheaded and the princess led away in chains.”
Jacob’s throat tightens as he continues: “The princess was locked in a tear-drop transparent prison, a solitary transport module orbiting the planet, and she wept as she saw the storms and fires ravage the Earth for years. Until a guard ship attached itself to her prison, and a guard who could no longer watch and do nothing released her.”
Jacob takes another sip of the water, wiping his mouth and eyes, and offers the cup to his mother. Her eyes burn bright as she slowly shakes her head.
“The two of them spent four cycles in space together,” Jacob says, his voice lowered. “Planning their next move, the princess listening to the guard’s loss at the hands of her father. His son and wife had been killed in a terrifying tsunami her father could have warned them about, and she comforted him as much as he did her.”
Edith holds her son’s nut-brown hand. His voice strengthens.
“The guard, the man she fell in love with, sacrificed everything by flying her to the emperor’s military HQ. He gave her the security codes and created a diversion while she boarded the mothership, and he fired at the guardships around it, inviting them to a chase across the heavens as he dodged and manoeuvred. But his small ship was no match for them, and despite his skill, they descended on him like hawks and shot him down from the sky.
“The princess heard the haunting sound of his radio cry as she stole her father’s fleet of ships and rescued as many stranded people as she could find across the world. With tears burning in her eyes, she programmed his space station to depart their homeworld.”
And Jacob finds there are tears in his eyes too, making the private medical cabin blurry around him.
“You tell it so well,” she tells her son, her words barely a whisper now.
“But I never saved our world, and that is a story ending no one wants to hear.”
Jacob places his other hand over hers. “A world without freedom is no world to live in, Mother. My grandfather and countless others in power destroyed our home planet, but you saved us from dying with it. Our people will never forget that no matter where we live.”
“I…” Her breath catches before she exhales weakly. “Thank you,” she manages.
Edith’s bio readings drop lower and lower with his stomach, fading to nothing. Jacobs sits, wiping the hot tears from his eyes. He has waited for this moment for weeks, trying to prepare himself for it, but he can’t imagine the pain he feels now would be any different if he did, the gulf of loss aching inside him. But with it comes the relief that she will no longer have to feel pain herself.
Jacob kisses his mother’s head, inhaling a smell he can only describe as childhood love and loss.
He turns and looks through the port window into cold space as starlight sparkles like the jewels of a tiara. He imagines his mother travelling through it now, guiding them to a new Arcadia and vows that each new generation will know her story.
Originally published in the February 2022 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
L. P. Melling current writes from the East of England, UK, after academia and a legal career swept him around the country. His poetry has appeared in such places as Frozen Wavelets, Star*Line, and Typehouse. When not writing, he works for a legal charity in London and is hopes coffee shops are able to open again soon.