Nemesis (Nemesis #1)


by Anna Banks

1

SEPORA

If I were not such a coward, I would hurl myself from Nuna’s back and plummet to the Underneath below. I would fall with purpose, headfirst on the rockiest part of the land. From this height, it would be painless. It would be swift.

It would prevent war.

But I am spineless, and so I urge my Serpen, Nuna, to fly higher and higher above the morning fog and mountaintops, which float against the sunrise and cast shadows like dark clouds onto the Underneath. Ah, the Underneath, that forbidden bit of land perched just beneath our mountains—mountains that are claimed by individual families or larger clans of families related in some way. Rope ladders sway in the wind all the way down, disappearing into the tall grass in places. If I weren’t fleeing my home kingdom of Serubel, I’d be caught up in the beauty of it all, so high, scraping at what feels like the ceiling of the sky and looking down upon the monotony of the life I used to live, running through the grasses, throwing rocks into the River Nefari from the safety of Nuna’s back, trampling over the undulating rope bridges connecting each of our mountains.

Yes, any other day, this would be a precious outing, a reprieve from Forging spectorium. Any other day, I would enjoy the freedom of flight, the time with Nuna, the endless possibilities of the morning.

But today will be the last of many things, and I mourn the loss of them already.

My thoughts wander again to far below us, far beneath the early mist and the waterfalls cascading into the River Nefari, to where my body should be sprawled, bloodied and lifeless and mauled. Yet, I tighten my hold on Nuna.

Saints of Serubel, but I am gutless.

Mother would have me believe otherwise: that it takes far more courage to hide, to live a life among the Baseborn class, who live in the poorest corner of our enemy kingdom Theoria. That the living conditions are rough, and the general mood of its residents even rougher. Those Serubelans who live there are not slaves anymore; stark poverty is what keeps them under Theorian control. If they could afford to, they would return to their homeland. If they could afford to, they would become citizens of Serubel again.

But I do not have that freedom. I can never return.

Not as long as Father wants to conquer the kingdoms. Not as long as I have what he needs to do so.

Nuna squirms beneath me as tears slip down my cheeks; she knows my feelings as well as I’ve come to know hers. She’s beautiful, Nuna, even if she is a Defender. Most Defender Serpens are ugly, and not only because of their rugged training scars, but also because they are the color of the green mucus that seeps from noses when someone catches cold. Their spiked tails and thick underbellies resemble calluses instead of the glistening, pearly scales of other Serpens of different uses, and their facial features seem naturally arranged to be fierce, all arched brows and mouths set in an almost humanlike scowl.

But to me, Nuna could never be ugly, perhaps because I’ve handled her for ten years already, since a time before the weight of my body entrenched a natural saddle along her neck, just behind her head. Grandfather always said that time grew things, like trees and children and affection. Perhaps because of the time I’ve spent with her, my affection covers over Nuna’s flaws. Oh, but it wasn’t always so. When I was barely waist-high to my father, he announced that the entire royal family would ride Defenders henceforth to ensure our protection. I remember that day well, even though my understanding of the way of things was only proportionate to my age. I knew the people of Serubel were upset, and I knew it had been Father’s doing. Father’s decree had come as a shock—a king who felt he needed the protection of a Defender was concerning, especially after a fragile Trade Treaty between Serubel and Theoria had just been penned. It was a cold treaty, but one promising peace—and so why would His Majesty need a Defender Serpen all of a sudden? It put our people at unease, to say the least. But no one in the kingdom could have been more shocked than me, a quiet six-year-old princess, scared of Serpens in general and morbidly terrified of Defenders in particular. Politics were matters for the adults, but riding Defender Serpens was a most pressing concern for a child.

Still, Nuna struck me as different almost from the beginning. Her green coloring runs a bit deeper than the other Defenders’, like fern leaves darkened by morning mist, and though she has the necessary scars from training to protect her royal rider, I had seen to it that the wounds were cared for and healed properly, so they are not as pronounced as the other Defenders’.

And when she sees me, I’d swear on the snowy caps of Serubel that she smiles.

Absently, I pet her head now as I spy the edge of the kingdom on the horizon. Where the grassy, rolling fields of Serubel end, that is where the Theorian desert begins. No, that is not entirely true. The kingdoms technically do not border each other; there is the Valley of the Tenantless that sweeps between the kingdoms, a vast, desolate dust bowl full of thickets and thorns and nothing of value and so uninviting and void that neither kingdom will lay claim to it. No one knows why this phenomenon occurs, where the bowl comes from, or what keeps it so bereft of life. Why the lush green grass of Serubel gives way to sand, then shriveling plants and prickly thorn bushes. Even the most intelligent of the Theorian scholars cannot solve the puzzle. And so the phenomenon is subject to rumors of a curse. Looking down upon the Tenantless from the safety of Nuna’s back, I could convince myself of a true curse. But curse or no, I have to cross the valley to get to the Theorian desert—which, in my opinion, might be considered cursed itself.

Who would choose to live in such a dry, desolate place, I wouldn’t know.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I should flee to an afflicted, bleak kingdom. That if I should live, it will be among the Baseborn class of Theoria. That each day I should break my back for my portion of food and shelter and that I should become a slave to my own hunger and thirst.

Yes, it’s fitting, and I want that for myself. I want that for myself more than I want an eternity in the cold recesses of the prison cell my father reserved for me. I want it more than the worry that he will soon grow tired of my resistance and perhaps trade my cell in favor of torturing me into Forging precious spectorium. I would rather hide in desolation and poverty, whether it be in the Baseborn Quarters or the Tenantless, than be the cause of thousands of deaths in all the five kingdoms.

And saints forgive me, I would rather hide than end my own life.

Nuna recognizes the boundary ahead of us—all Serpens are trained to halt at the sight of it—and she begins to slow, her three pairs of wings catching the wind instead of moving it. I coo into the small orifice that is her ear and bid her to land just before the grass fades into outstretched sand, the first of the overgrown thorn bushes standing guard in front of the rest of the valley.