This is a continuation from the previous month's short story. Please read Part 1 here.
That evening, Sylmae—who currently resembled her best friend, Aina—wore a dress she knew she never would’ve been able to wear as the poor girl from the forest. It was only because she was in this privileged house with plentiful food and well-known guests that she was in this position. But every time her eyes lingered on the various cheeses in front of her, one of the servants gave her a stern glare.
Looks like they really won’t be letting me eat too much tonight… What a waste. It doesn’t look like many other people are eating, either. I just don’t get rich people, she thought, crossing her arms and frowning.
“Such a sour expression doesn’t suit a face as lovely as yours,” someone behind her said.
Sylmae briskly turned around in surprise, the hem of her dress lifting slightly from the sudden twist. The man who’d spoken to her looked young—but older than her, for sure—and had cropped brown hair, styled as if he had just woken up like that but in reality had spent a lot of effort to achieve the slightly tousled style.
“My apologies. The formal introductions aren’t for several more minutes, but I couldn’t resist greeting you now,” he said with a gentle smile. “My name is Frederick Whitby. You must be Aina.”
Sylmae could have screamed; she swallowed it back into her throat so as not to cause a scene and completely ruin her friend’s reputation. “Um, uh, hi,” she stammered. “Y-yeah, I’m Aina.”
Frederick took her hand softly in his and pressed his lips to the back of her hand. She blushed deeply, unsure of how to respond to someone so forward. Did Aina always deal with this sort of thing?
He bid her farewell for the time being, and Sylmae was, once again, alone in a room filled with people, swimming in a sea of chatter. She crossed an arm over her body and gripped her other arm, digging the point of her shoe into the hardwood floor. The room was uncomfortably large; Sylmae had never seen a ceiling so high. She wondered if it arched higher than many of the trees in the forest.
When a servant caught eye of her, he passed her a glass of sparkling apple juice in a champagne flute and told her to sip on it whenever she felt anxious. Sylmae could have gulped down the whole thing right then.
After a few minutes had passed, Aina’s parents stood at the top of the staircase in the large reception hall and addressed everyone, thanking them for their presence. They also announced it as a celebration of Aina’s fifteenth birthday, sending a roar of applause Sylmae’s way.
Wait, that’s today?!
Sylmae had completely forgotten to get anything for her. The next chance she had to sneak out, she’d have to go see Aina and give her a present. Maybe they could talk about everything that had happened to them both recently. Sylmae needed to complain to her about how awesome Aina’s life was and how she had no room to groan about it.
Well...maybe some things, she corrected herself, looking at the wave of people watching her every move before Aina’s parents asked for everyone’s attention again.
They introduced the Whitby family and thanked them for being their special guests for the evening. “We hope their son, Frederick, and our lovely daughter, Aina, will lean on each other in times of need, like our families have always done,” Aina’s father said.
Frederick smiled at the girl he thought was Aina. Sylmae forced a grin in return, though she was fairly sure it didn’t look as natural as the one he was offering her.
Mother Earth, please get me through whatever gets thrown this way…
Before long, a string quartet took the stage and began playing. People took to the dance floor, and then Frederick approached the Hughes’ daughter. Not wanting to be rude, Sylmae took his hand as he led her to the dance floor.
At first, Sylmae was glad he was leading; she didn’t know how to dance at all. Aina probably had some training, but Sylmae had no idea when which foot went where. Frederick kept a steady hand on her back and stepped this way and that, his body naturally influencing which way she turned and moved. It took a great deal of pressure off of her.
They didn’t speak much during the first dance. When it ended, he moved one pace away from her, and with her hand in his, bowed first to her and then to the audience. Sylmae stood in place, frozen and unsure what to do when the crowd erupted in applause.
She awkwardly managed a curtsy to no one in particular, not entirely sure what was happening.
Once the cheering died down, the musicians resumed playing, and Frederick took her hand in his once more.
“Thank you for the dance,” he said with that charismatic smile.
“N-not at all,” Sylmae stammered.
He took the lead stance again. Sylmae thought his hand on her back and his grip on her hand seemed a little more forceful this time.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “Everyone always talks about the Hughes’ daughter looking so cute, but I think you’re breathtaking. Anyone would be happy to have you.”
“My parents could not stop talking about how much I was going to love you. It was honestly hilarious.” He laughed, though Sylmae was not sure why. “You really are charming. You’re quieter than the rumors say, though.”
When Sylmae cocked her head to the side, he elaborated, “You don’t know your reputation, do you? All the guys you’ve turned down sure like to talk. They all said you came off as rather brusque, refusing to dance more than the first song with them. I guess my winning smile won you over.”
He suddenly spun her around as the music picked up. Without missing a beat, he stepped forward to close the gap and set his hand on her back—forcefully, again.
Sylmae’s breath caught in her throat, and she didn’t think it was from the dancing.
Frederick smiled at her. She knew she should be putting on a good first impression for him, but that grin made her uncomfortable.
I wouldn’t want Aina marrying this guy…
The party ended up lasting well into the late hours of the night. The Whitbys had been the last guests to leave. Aina’s parents had offered them to stay in one of the guest rooms, but the other family politely declined and said they already had accommodations elsewhere and wouldn’t want to intrude—to Sylmae’s relief. She couldn’t imagine being able to fall asleep knowing Frederick was sleeping under the same roof somewhere.
Just before leaving, Frederick had wrapped his arms around Sylmae in a too-intimate embrace and kissed her on the cheek, thanking her for the pleasant evening, eliciting gasps and smiles from the parents around them. Sylmae awkwardly returned the hug, afraid of defying any of the more powerful people around her, but she was relieved when they departed.
Aina’s mother was particularly more pleasant than she had been earlier in the day as she walked the girl back to her room, asking how she liked Frederick, how she had behaved with him, and so on. Sylmae gave her brief answers, afraid of voicing her true feelings.
After Sylmae was alone in Aina’s room, things were uncomfortably quiet. As she was changing out of the dress into a top and bottom pajama set, she couldn’t shake the sensation of that young man’s arms around her; it made her grimace. She really wanted to talk to Aina about all that had happened.
So, she arranged a bunch of pillows underneath the covers, pushed a window open, paused to make sure no one was coming, and then took in a deep breath. Her hands felt warm as she envisioned a long vine snaking its way up from the ground to the window. Aina’s room wasn’t on one of the highest floors, but it was still three stories off the ground. No one could make that jump—well, not without wind magic.
Sylmae tugged on a vine to make sure it wouldn’t break, and then slowly, carefully descended along the side of the building. She wasn’t far enough in her earth magic mastery to conjure vines to catch her in time if she slipped.
When she got to the bottom, she realized she had no idea which way their hideout was. She didn’t have a clue where anything in the city was.
I still need to get her a present...
Aina trudged through a bush and sucked in her breath when she felt some thorns scratch her legs. “Honestly!” She stomped on them in Sylmae’s boots and pushed onward.
She couldn’t say for sure how to get to the hideout from here, but she’d been through enough of the forest that day to know where it wasn’t.
I knew this body-switching thing was going to be a mess. What a waste of time.
Aina continued grumbling to herself about how much she hated the forest, how wrong Sylmae’s parents were, how those restrictions were unfair. No wonder Sylmae complained about her home life.
After another thorn lodged itself in her leg, she yelled and swung her arm as if she was about to punch the bush. She stopped just short and a burst of flames burned the thorns to a crisp. She gasped and quickly conjured a pool of water to fall on top of the flames so as not to start a forest fire.
She sighed. Fire magic came all too easily to her when she was wrapped up in her feelings.
Now that I think about it...not everything about this has been so bad, she mused. I got to learn more about Sylmae, things about herself she never would have told me. I got to see what it’s like to live in the forest. I got to meet spirits. This never would have happened in the city…
Aina had made up her mind: When she got home back in her own body, she would work to mend the misconceptions about the forest dwellers. She wanted to make her world and Sylmae’s world closer to each other, even if it was by just a little.
She’d have to figure out how to swap back with Sylmae first, though.
A couple hours had passed.
The city was a lot bigger than Sylmae could have even imagined. If anyone happened to be looking outside, she was certain they’d call the police or something. A young girl wandering around past midnight in her pajamas was not normal.
Fortunately, once she found the downtown area, there were maps for her to reorient herself with. There happened to be an exit not too far away, and the illustration on the map indicated there was a field of flowers just past that particular exit. It was called Sunnyside Fields, partially from the bright yellow flowers that bloomed there and also because the sun shone quite strongly in the area.
Sylmae recognized that name. Aina had taken her there a couple times when they had been bored of the usual hideout spot. The first time Sylmae had been there, she’d been worried about what might happen if she got too close to the city borders—her parents had told her all sorts of horror stories about city dwellers bullying forest residents—but Aina had assured her everything would be fine. They never got too close to the city, just in case. And it had been worth it—the view had been amazing.
She dashed ahead to Sunnyside Fields, which of course wasn’t quite so sunny at this time of night. Instead, the moonlight illuminated the fields, casting a cool blue tone over all the flowers.
A dirt path kept travelers off the flowers, and as Sylmae walked along it, she couldn’t help staring at all the beautiful yellow flowers on both sides. An idea struck her.
She bent down, summoned the strength to her fingertips—though not too much; this would be a more delicate job—and the familiar warmth filled her hands while she got to work, weaving grass this way and that, arranging the yellow flowers throughout. It was probably messier than one her parents could make, but a present was a present.
She made her way forward while carefully holding her handiwork.
Aina had made it to the hideout, pricked all over by the nasty bushes. She wasn’t even sure why she had rushed out of the house to come here. She had no way of contacting Sylmae, and their routine had been thrown off that day from the body-switching spell. She just knew she needed to talk to her and get back to normal.
She wanted to apologize. She wanted to ask what life at the Hughes household had been like that day. She had questions about what life was like in the forest from what she had seen that day. She wanted to tell her about her dream to unite these two worlds.
“Aina! You’ll never believe this!” a voice exclaimed—her own.
She nearly shrieked; though, this situation seemed familiar.
“Sylmae! But how did you—”
“I just sort of wandered around outside for a bit late at night until I found my way here. I remembered that field you took me to. By the way, here! Happy birthday!”
Sylmae presented her a flower crown. The yellow flowers popped against the green of the base of the crown. When Aina stared at it in complete shock, Sylmae placed it on top of her head.
“Today was my birthday!” she exclaimed.
“Uh, yeah, hence the present.”
Aina grabbed Sylmae by the shoulders. It was not lost on her that she was actually clutching her own shoulders with her best friend’s hands. “No, no, no, I mean—my birthday party my parents were throwing… The Whitbys… The marriage business my parents keep pushing on me… Are you okay?”
Aina had more thoughts than she could convey in words. Sylmae just laughed sheepishly.
“I appreciate the concern, but I’m all right,” she replied. “Though, Frederick Whitby came on a little strong…”
“That’s what I feared.” Aina sat down and began picking at the grass next to her. “I hadn’t met him in person, but there have always been rumors about him having a very strong, assuming personality. And…”
Sylmae plopped down next to her, letting the blond hair spread out around her in the dirt. “And?”
“He’s the sort of person who takes what he wants, regardless of what others think. That’s why my parents love him; they think he’s going to be a great businessman.”
Sylmae erupted in laughter. “Yeah, I get what you mean.” Then her smile morphed into something more somber. “Well, I think I sort of messed some stuff up for you in the long term. I’m sorry. I had no idea—”
“Do not apologize.” Aina was serious. She met Sylmae’s gaze and held it. “You had no idea what you were being thrown into. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“I’m sorry I talked like you don’t have any problems.”
“And I’m sorry I implied your family problems didn’t matter. Your parents are quite stubborn about you never leaving the forest.”
Sylmae sighed and sat up. “They’re just scared about stuff that happened to them in the past, though they’ve never told me the specifics. At least my parents don’t wanna sell me off to some asshole. Oh, and don’t worry—I kept the language clean while I was pretending to be you.”
Aina threw her arms around her best friend in a tight embrace. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Same to you.”
Suddenly, balls of light appeared around both girls, forming a circle and dancing around them. Symbols appeared on the ground; neither Aina nor Sylmae could read them, but they felt like they’d seen them before. A flash of light blinded them both temporarily, forcing them to bring their hands in front of their faces. When it lessened, they both slowly opened their eyes.
Sylmae recognized the hand in front of her eyes as her own. Aina did the same, and ran her hands through her hair, brushing out some of the loose dirt and grass. They both giggled and hugged again.
“Oh, crap, how are you gonna get back to your room?” Sylmae asked suddenly.
Aina grinned mischievously. “Don’t worry about it. I know that house and its grounds a lot better than you do. Just make sure you’re extra quiet when walking up the stairs to your own room.”
Sylmae gave her a thumbs-up. “See you tomorrow around the usual time?”
Aina nodded. “Absolutely. And we’ll have some business to discuss.”
They each had different problems to address, but with two heads together, they’d be able to work it out. While Aina approached her parents the next morning to talk about how uncomfortable Frederick Whitby made her feel–dodging their protests at how she seemed to have liked him and he was such a nice boy, all of which she knew was ridiculous—Sylmae similarly confessed to her parents that she had, in fact, been sneaking out of the forest and had been to the city for the first time—though she never explained how that had come about.
Aina started visiting Sylmae’s family more, and even persuaded them to accompany her to Sunnyside Fields and then to the downtown park in the city. She had started inviting more forest dwellers to picnics in the park, gradually inviting city residents onlooking the scene over for a sandwich or a cookie. Before long, the forest dwellers were considered regulars to the downtown area.
Sylmae’s regular appearance with Aina had become well-known to the Hughes family. Aina had asked her parents one day if Sylmae could spend the night, and with enough persistence, they had caved in to her requests. The Hughes parents were still a work in progress—Aina was insistent that they would never change their ways—but having Sylmae around meant they tempered their words, trying to appear like welcoming hosts to their daughter’s friend. A year later, Aina had even convinced her parents to allow Sylmae to come to her sixteenth birthday party. Frederick Whitby was back for the celebration, and Sylmae stuck to Aina’s side the whole time, shooting glares his way whenever he started to come their way. He left Aina alone for the entire night.
Watching over all of this was the old sorcerer from a year ago. He stared into a crystal ball, observing the happy smiles of the girls. He waved a hand over the ball, and the picture faded away.
All they’d needed was a push.
Don’t ever underestimate the power two friends have together.