Start reading at Chapter 1
After a time of walking, the sun climbing higher in the sky, the trail Amira followed faded from dust to pastel covered pebbles. The vegetation surrounding the path growing palpably thicker, she began looking for her tree.
An ancient weeping willow stood as a silent guardian to the gateway of the lands of The East and had been Amira’s friend since she had learned to explore on her own. It stood towering at the height of twelve men and its trunk could easily fit them all inside. The willow was in the season of its flowering, the hanging leaves seemingly covered in what appeared to be snow.
But there was no snow to be found here in The East. The warm weather prone to this side of Orbis hardly ever changed its course from mild. A winter frost may sometimes cling to the air to remind Easterners of the seasonal change, but it could never hold on for long.
Amira reached her tree and stepped beneath the overhanging leaves. The featherlight touch of the drooping branches seemed to greet her.
“I’m happy to see you, too,” Amira whispered as she ran her hands through the green and white blossoms. The wind rustled through her hair and made the air beneath the canopy stir with music.
Stepping into the clearing between the trunk and the hanging leaves felt like a sanctuary. Amira was no stranger to places of worship, the chanting and swaying and braying of the priests within stone walls.
Yet, she never felt the stir of magic like she did when she entered the sanctity of this place, nor did she ever feel more like singing while standing there beneath the safety of her weeping willow’s arms.
She paused and closed her eyes, allowing her skin to erupt in gooseflesh, her very blood to rise and meet every pore.
For a brief moment she thought of staying here forever. She could make her way in the jungle, couldn’t she? She didn’t think herself completely helpless.
No more parties nor choices she wasn’t equipped to make nor positions she never wanted to fill. No more servants meeting her every need nor friends needing to be reminded of their place next to her by other servants.
Was it so selfish to just want to to be? Was it so terrible to want to be free?
It didn’t matter. She opened her eyes and moved towards the hollow in the trunk of the willow.
The opening was covered in a layer of sticks, leaves and anything else Amira scrounged up the day she got her wheeler. She had been in need of a quick hiding place, as Silla was everything impulsive and nothing practical. All Amira had said was that she wished she had a quicker way to explore the jungle. Silla showed up the next morning riding what she called a “wheeler.” Some boy she knew in the village made it, the inventor’s son.
Silla also kindly let Amira know exactly how much coin she owed her for the odd invention. Amira paid her happily.
Amira pulled the wheeler out of the hollow and pushed it onto the grass. It had six wheels on either side of a wooden cart with a seat that protruded from the middle. Then, there were what Silla called the pushers which protruded from a hole at the bottom of the cart. These are what made the wheels go round.
Before climbing onto the contraption, Amira touched the bark of her tree in parting. Then, climbing onto the wheeler, she pressed the pushers and set off to find her unfortunate friend in the glass bottle.
Easterners and Southerners had always been on pleasant terms, allies in all past wars. But Amira was still forbidden from crossing the border and entering the land of The South. The trail she rode through now was a trade route called The Spice Road. Nothing but traders, travelers, thieves and the people called Truemen—who were sort of a mixture of all—passed on the road.
The Spice Road ran all the way through the East, West and Southern lands in a bit of an incomplete circle. The Northern Kingdom had no roads or entryways, and its subjects travelled neither in nor out.
Strange place, the North. The only land in all of Orbis still ruled by blood, both in government and in its insatiable thirst for war. Legends told of the Northern people’s culture of violence, its children trained from infancy to be ready for battle.
Amira shivered, though it was not cold as she was in Southern territory. Her body began to heat up with the exercise, perspiration forming on her brow.
“Where is it?” She said aloud as she scanned the brush for the clearing that led to the beach.
Everything looked the same in this jungle, all the trees stretched to the sky loaded down with big waxy green leaves. But Amira was pretty sure she had ridden the wheeler long enough, the beach not being far from the border of the East. Pulling over to the side of the road, she stepped off the wheeler and walked towards the coastline through an opening cut into the side.
She felt as if she were breathing in water. Amira was always impressed with how quickly the weather changed once she crossed the Eastern border into the South. The air hung heavy here, like a cloud had one day decided to see what it was like to touch the land and enjoyed the feeling so much it never left.
Breathing hard, Amira tumbled on to the seashore pouring sweat, her cloak sticking to her like a second skin.
A Southern breeze whipped her cloak around her, carrying with it the scent of salt and rotting wood. Amira walked to the sea, dipping her hands in the water and splashing her face. It almost made her feel worse off, the saltiness of the seawater leaving her skin feeling strangely sticky.
She looked to the left and then to the right, but saw no sign of a glass bottle or the black haired boy who lived in it. Thinking to herself that he must be further down the shoreline, Amira stepped into the sand to mark her place with seashells and rocks. After forming a rather large and obvious arrow that pointed towards the way she came in, she took off her green cloak and laid it beside the sign for good measure. It was far too hot for it anyway.
Incrementally, as she followed the shoreline farther into the Southern lands, Amira called out variations of “Boy!” or “Sev!” The Southern sun bore down on her harshly until she became increasingly thirsty and grumpy. Amira scolded herself for not packing a lunch or a sling of water, but she was, after all, not in her best mind, today of all days.
Deciding to look for a creek or stream to quench her thirst, Amira steered her feet towards the jungle. As she turned her head in the direction of her newest destination, a sharp burst of light caused her to whip her head away in pain.
Rubbing her eyes and blinking a few times to clear the bright spots from her vision, Amira attempted to look up again and was met with the same bright light. It was as if someone was holding up a mirror to the sun and pointing the reflection straight at her.
Amira closed her eyes and walked several paces forward before trying to open them again. When she no longer saw bright red in the back of her eyelids, Amira peered out again and grinned.
She had found the bottle, hidden right on the edge of a copse up ahead. Quickening her pace, Amira pulled her feet through the white beach, the sand squeaking beneath her as she struggled to keep herself aloft.
Reaching the bottle at last, she pulled away the big palmetto leaves, shielding the bottle from view, to knock on the glass but let out a scream instead.
For inside the bottle was not a boy, but a lion! A sleeping lion as white as the sand she just traipsed through, with a mane like snow or pearls or the great bears legends said ruled the North.
Amira fell on her rump in terror, her hands tearing with sand spurs as she tried desperately to push herself back as far away from the lion as she could manage.
But the great beast merely opened its eyes and stared at her as if it were bored out of its mind. It shook its mane like it were warding off an irksome fly and even seemed to roll its eyes. Eyes like sapphires, eyes like a shallow pool or ocean waves. Then it stood on its hindquarters and stretched back its magnificent head like it would let out a roar, but its body contorted. Every bone in the creature seemed to be cracking. The torso melded into that of a man, its paws becoming hands and feet, the mane darkening into raven’s feathers and its eyes …
… its eyes became black like a watery pit at the bottom of a wishing well, black like poisoned apples or coals.
Its white coat became skin like sandstone.
There stood Sev, the boy in the glass bottle.
Amira screamed again covering her face, sand spurs grazing small cuts on her cheek.
“I told you,” the boy drawled. “You can’t save me.”
Amira’s breath came in short huffs, the shock warding off any pain from her fall. “You’re a … you’re a …” She managed to get out.
“Yes,” said Sev. “I’m a Skin. A skin and the Seventh son. Twice-cursed, twice-hated, twice-despised. Frankly, I have no idea why I’m even still alive. Believe me, I have my moments.”
Amira grabbed ahold of her shock and throttled it into submission, standing on wobbly legs.
“And I know who you are, too.” Sev rolled his shoulders and looked at her with disgust. For a moment, Amira thought he might turn back into that horrible lion. “It was nagging at me, where I had heard the name Amira before.”
Clenching her jaw, Amira stood tall and narrowed her eyes.
“But I have all the time in the world to think and I at last found my answer.” Sev leaned his forearm on the glass, the beginnings of a haughty smile flirting on his lips.
Amira’s cheeks heated, her eyes burned with tears that only came when she was angry.
“Hello Amira of Orbis, First Daughter of The Eastern lands.” Sev’s smile was wolflike. “Don’t you have a party to get to, princess?”