Light circled their fingers and filled their hands with warmth. Two girls giggled as they drew shapes in the air and shot stars from their fingertips. They sat in a small clearing, surrounded by a dense collection of trees on all sides. The bright orange leaves, fully having changed colors at the height of the season, obscured the sun, but the pair of girls could tell it was getting late by the dimming light.
“I should head back home before my parents get upset,” the girl with long and silky blond hair said with a tone of regret. She wore an A-line dress skimming her knees, under which she wore a white blouse with a Peter Pan-style collar. She quickly checked her outfit to make sure she hadn’t gotten any dirt on her clothes.
Her friend, a girl with shoulder-length curly green hair—so voluminous it looked like it overtook her head—snickered and levitated a clump of dirt with a flick of her index finger.
“Sylmae, don’t you dare,” the blond girl threatened.
Sylmae laughed. She and her friend, Aina, were from different worlds, but she knew they would both be in trouble with their families if they returned home past dusk.
“You’re right. I’m just messing around.” She dropped the clod of dirt and shrugged her shoulders. “Anyway, I’m just trying to put off going home for as long as possible…” Her voice trailed off as she flopped down onto the ground, staring off into the branches above.
Aina sat down, pulling her knees against her chest and smoothing her dress against the back of her thighs. She cocked her head to the side toward her friend and watched her for a while. When Sylmae didn’t say anything, Aina spoke up.
“Are your parents being...you know...again?”
Sylmae groaned and dug her fingers into her frizzy curls. “They don’t get it! They just want me to stay at home and be a good little forest magician who only uses earth magic and inherit the family’s alchemy business.”
Aina nodded but remained silent. She’d heard this many times before from Sylmae.
“Being in that house is like a cluster of vines slowly but steadily constricting me further and further, and once it’s too late, I’ll be stuck there forever.”
Aina sighed. “I don’t understand why parents are so stuck on their kids only knowing one kind of magic when there’s so much more out there. Who am I impressing by mastering water magic?”
“The rest of your upper class friends,” Sylmae remarked snidely. The more influential families tended to be practitioners and scholars of water magic exclusively. Sylmae was fairly sure that was solely because it was considered a more delicate form of magic and pretty to watch.
“They’re not my friends,” Aina shot back. “You’re not the only one faltering between a rock and a hard place.”
Sylmae rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I get it. Your life’s rough, too. But you’ve never seen what it’s like to deal with my family. I bet yours would be a walk in the park. I bet you get all these special privileges for being the sole heir to the Hughes family, top scholars of the country,” she mocked.
Aina shot to her feet and clenched her fists. “Don’t presume to know my situation.”
Sylmae laughed. “You couldn’t hide being connected to such a prestigious family even if you tried.”
“Well, you wouldn’t last a day there!”
“Is that a dare?”
“You know you aren’t allowed on the grounds.”
“Yeah, but you’re allowed.”
Aina furrowed her brow. “Pardon?”
Sylmae sat up and grinned, her large front teeth on display. “I heard a rumor about a sorcerer in the forest who has a spell that lets you switch bodies with someone.”
Aina grimaced. “That sounds horrifying.”
The green-haired troublemaker got to her feet and started walking away. “Well, I’ll meet you here tomorrow, and then we’ll head into the forest and find him!”
“What?!” Aina exclaimed, but Sylmae had already taken off in a sprint, giggling.
With the autumn air gently pushing her long hair to and fro, Aina sighed. As much as she protested, she knew she’d be back tomorrow to see her friend and the mysterious sorcerer. She at least needed to prove to Sylmae that the spell couldn’t possibly exist—and even if it did, she’d prove to her friend that being a member of the Hughes family was way harder than it seemed.
Aina arrived at their secret meeting spot first, and when Sylmae didn’t arrive at the normal time, she began to grow worried. At first, she figured Sylmae’s parents had caught her trying to sneak out of the forest; then she wondered if Sylmae had chickened out on going to the sorcerer; then she worried that she had already gone to the sorcerer and gotten hurt or trapped there. Her mind came up with all kinds of scenarios: an old, evil magic user with a long, graying beard; Sylmae being tied up and lowered into a cauldron; her being trapped there, forced to work and never see her friends—er, friend—and family ever again!
But then Sylmae leaped through a bush and yelled, “Aina, you’ll never believe this!”
Aina nearly shrieked. She felt every muscle in her body tighten, and she scrunched up her shoulders before relaxing enough to turn to her energetic friend.
“I found him!” she continued. “I told my parents I was going to make some deliveries, and while I was out, I asked around for where the sorcerer might be. Well, none of the adults were gonna tell me, and anyone our age didn’t have a clue, but a bunch of nymphs appeared and showed me!”
Sylmae was talking a mile a minute, and Aina could scarcely keep up. Once she stopped talking and took a breath, she grabbed Aina’s hand and ran, urging her to follow as if she wasn’t being dragged along anyway.
Aina let herself be pulled along; the forest was Sylmae’s domain, because she was proficient at earth-based magic, and she’d lived here her whole life. Aina was much more comfortable at finding her way around urban landscapes.
Trees whizzed by them as Sylmae dashed ahead, Aina not far behind. The occasional forest spirit popped its head out of a bush to see what the two girls were doing, and once they passed, it paid them no mind.
Aina started to notice more and more of the spirits—nymphs, she thought—appear along their path. They were varying shades of green and brown, with insect-like eyes and iridescent hair. Small orbs of light that reminded Aina of fireflies from summer evenings accompanied the spirits and gave a warm glow to the deep forest.
“Wow,” Aina said quietly, as if she was exhaling a breath she’d held for slightly too long.
“Aren’t they cool?!” Sylmae exclaimed, less of a question than it was a statement.
Aina’s speechless response was enough of an agreement.
When the path ended, a small clearing lay in front of the pair, and at its center stood a small stone house. Sylmae rushed to the wooden front door and rapped her knuckles against it before shouting, “Mr. Sorcerer, we’re here!”
Aina cocked her head. “Mr. Sorcerer?”
“He didn’t give me his name,” Sylmae replied with a shrug.
The door creaked as it slowly swung open. Peering from the other side was a short man with a long beard, and he wore half-moon glasses perched atop his nose. His eyes were dark, his face was wrinkled, and he looked utterly unamused.
“I thought I told you to go away,” he said. His voice was hoarse, like he had talked far too much in another lifetime and rarely spoke now.
“No, you told me to run along to my friends. I did, and now I brought her here!” Sylmae laughed.
Both Aina and the old man raised an eyebrow. Sylmae still seemed pleased with herself, though.
The sorcerer sighed. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
Sylmae nodded with exuberance, her curls bouncing around as she whipped her head up and down.
“And you?” The sorcerer turned to Aina.
“Pardon my confusion, but...what is happening here?” she asked, eyeing the books strewn about on the floor. They were all thick, heavy volumes.
Sylmae grinned. “Remember our bet from yesterday?”
Aina had to pause to think for a moment, but she did recall Sylmae insinuating the forest girl’s life was tougher than her own. “Wait, so we’re actually going through with us switching bodies?!” She grimaced.
Sylmae threw her hands up in the air and plopped them down on top of Aina’s shoulders and nodded. “Of course we are!”
The sorcerer, now standing next to a high wooden table, cleared his throat loudly. “Either take a seat over here so that we can get this over with or get out of my house.”
Aina hesitated to follow Sylmae’s lead in approaching the sorcerer, but when she imagined her friend’s tearful apology—I’m so sorry, Aina! You were right! You have to deal with so many troubles. I was clearly in the wrong!—she couldn’t resist.
The sorcerer pulled a wand from his long coat, and the girls watched it with curiosity. They didn’t have wands of their own; one needed a formal teacher to help craft a device for intensifying magical powers.
He swirled it around in the air as if shaking the dust from it, though colorful sparkles bounced around the room. He flipped through a book, which he levitated next to him.
“I will need each of you to offer me a bit of your blood.”
Aina gasped as her face blanched. “Don’t tell me you practice dark magic?”
“Child, just because I also make use of human components rather than only elements from our environment does not make it dark,” he chided. “Are you not a work of nature?”
Sylmae had already grabbed a small knife from on top of the table and made a small nick in the palm of her hand. The sorcerer instructed her to wipe her blood on a piece of parchment, which he handed to her. Sylmae did as asked and then urged her friend to do the same.
“It’s okay! It’s only a little prick. It doesn’t hurt for long,” she assured.
That wasn’t the part that gave Aina reservations, but she found it hard not to be swept into Sylmae’s wake. So she went along with it. She took the second knife from the table, held it to her palm, scrunched her eyes closed, and made a small “eep” as she cut. She wiped her hand on a second piece of parchment.
“Excellent. Now, you will need these bandages,” the sorcerer said. When the girls were about to bandage their own wounds, he cut in, “Wait—I did not explain yet. You must bandage each other’s hands. Clasp your partner’s hand in your own, close your eyes, and feel each other’s thoughts.”
They both felt a little skepticism at this, staring at each other. Aina raised an eyebrow, and Sylmae gave her a half-smile and a shrug. Nonetheless, Aina took the woven material floating in front of them from the sorcerer and wrapped it around Sylmae’s left hand.
Sylmae did the same for her friend, gently wrapping it around Aina’s hand, pressing the wound. Aina had cut herself a little deeper than she meant to, so she was bleeding a bit more.
The soft-spoken girl gingerly reached for Sylmae’s bandaged hand, cupping her hands around it. Sylmae brought her other hand on top of Aina’s wound. They each took a deep breath together and closed their eyes. They waited for a few moments, waiting for some grand moment to arrive, but nothing seemed to be happening. Sylmae opened an eye, peeking at Aina, who still held her eyes closed in concentration.
The exuberant girl asked, “So, are we supposed to switch yet?”
The sorcerer rapped her on the back of her hand. “Not yet! You are too impatient.”
“When you both go to sleep tonight in your own beds, you need to picture each other. The rest will follow.”
“Huh?” Sylmae cocked her head.
Aina sighed in exasperation. “I knew this would be a waste of time. Sylmae, if you would not mind leading me back to our meeting spot.” It was a demand, not a suggestion.
“All right, all right.”
The two girls departed, closing the door behind them and leaving the sorcerer alone in his sea of books on the floor. He smiled beneath his bushy facial hair and chuckled to himself.
“That pair has much to learn.”
That night, Sylmae and Aina both did as the strange old sorcerer said, despite no longer believing it would work. Sylmae lay in her bed on her old mattress, staring at the ceiling as she wondered what Aina’s house was like. Aina, also resting in bed, closed her eyes and tried to imagine Sylmae’s family. Were they really as stifling as her friend said they were? Did they all have green hair like she did?
Each girl fell soundly asleep, drifting off into dreams in which they flew through the night sky, surrounded by shooting stars, bright colors, and the four elements—and each of them swore they ever so briefly saw each other as they passed by midflight…
“Sylmae! Sylmae, wake up already! It’s your turn to offer blessings to the gnome spirits!”
An older woman with long green hair tied into a bun that threatened to burst from its volume slammed the bedroom door open. She crossed her arms and stared at the young girl still asleep in bed, covers pulled tightly around her, green curls peeking out from under the bedsheets.
“Huh…?” the girl murmured as she began to wake up.
“Just get dressed and get yourself out of bed immediately!” the woman said before slamming the door shut behind her.
The slam rattled everything in the room.
The girl rubbed her eyes and went to push the hair out of her eyes when she realized something: it felt...different. It was curly. It was thick. And it was green.
She almost fell out of bed as she grasped the situation.
This was Aina, and she was in Sylmae’s body.
“It...worked?” she wondered out loud.
Now that she looked at her hands, she realized her skin was darker, too. She looked exactly like Sylmae. And she had woken up in her friend’s bedroom, so the sorcerer’s spell must have been successful. Aina wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
Sylmae’s room was fairly bare, and it was small. It had enough room for a bed, a small desk without any ornamentation, and a matching wooden chair to the desk. There were no stuffed animals, no pictures, no trophies—nothing personal about the room.
Aina found a drawer under the bed with clothes inside. There wasn’t much variety to pick from, so it wasn’t difficult to pick out an outfit that felt very Sylmae-like. Once she finished getting dressed, she went down the stairs into the kitchen and dining room. A small boy—Aina assumed this was Sylmae’s brother—and two adults were at the table, finishing breakfast.
“Food’s in the fridge,” the man said. He was probably Sylmae’s father.
“Thank you,” Aina said.
The woman’s eyes lifted to meet Aina’s. Her gaze conveyed annoyance but also confusion. “Sleep well?” she asked.
“Oh, um, yes,” Aina stammered, opening a small refrigerator. She wasn’t exactly sure what was supposed to be breakfast, but she saw a bowl of hard-boiled eggs and guessed that was likely it. How much does Sylmae typically eat? she pondered. Not wanting to leave the refrigerator open for long, she grabbed one egg and looked around for a plate.
“Plate’s on the table, dear,” the man said. “Are you going to be okay with just one of those? You know you’ve got deliveries today. Make sure you have your energy.”
“Oh… Okay, you’re right,” she responded.
With a second egg in hand, she sat down at the table with Sylmae’s family. Aina looked out the window to notice that it was still fairly dark outside. The sun had only just begun to rise. How early does her family get up everyday…? Aina furrowed her brow in thought as she bit into her egg.
“Something the matter?” Sylmae’s mother asked.
Aina nearly panicked. “Oh, um, nothing at all.”
“That’s just her normal face,” Sylmae’s brother said. He turned to her expecting a reaction, but Aina just kept eating. When she didn’t respond, he looked back to his parents. “Woah, maybe she’s sick or something.”
“I’m not ill,” Aina insisted. “I just had a strange dream. I’ll finish breakfast and then...go to the gnomes.” She still had no idea what she needed to do for that, though.
The other family members left over the course of the following few minutes while Aina ate her eggs and sipped some water. They surely all had their own routines. Today was just another day to them. Aina noticed Sylmae’s father going through a notebook with a pen, whereas Sylmae’s mother went into a workroom off the kitchen. When Aina finished her meal and put away her plate, she poked her head into the side room to see the older woman mixing things in vials.
“What is it, Sylmae? Do you need something?” she asked.
“Don’t tell me you forgot where the gnomes’ shrine is.”
That’s technically not true, considering I never knew where it was in the first place…, Aina thought with an inward grimace.
“Take the map I drew for Faelyn last month,” Sylmae’s mother said, gesturing back to the kitchen with a small metal stirrer in hand.
Aina nearly replied with a “Yes, ma’am,” but caught herself, clamping a hand over her mouth. She gave a quick nod and turned around to find a drawing on the table. It showed a few paths, the location of the house, and a circle with “Gnomes” written in the corner. The lines were all illustrated cleanly. Sylmae’s mother was quite the architect, Aina decided. Next to the map was a woven straw bowl with loaves of bread inside. They were still warm.
As Aina headed outdoors, she saw Sylmae’s father chasing after his small boy, shouting, “Faelyn, you know you have to study before you can go play with your friends!”
With a smile, Aina waved to them both and set off, wondering if it’d be okay to sneak a piece of bread; she figured Sylmae would do the same.
A girl with straight blonde hair sat at the long dining table with a man and a woman. The room seemed big enough to fit as many as ten of these long tables, and with just the one, it felt a bit empty. However, the three were not the only ones in the room. Other men and women calmly walked up to the people seated to offer various pastries, styles of eggs, soups, meat, and bread.
Stuffing food into her mouth, Sylmae—in Aina’s body—could not believe how lucky her friend had it.
The man at the other end of the table, Aina’s father, loudly cleared his throat. Sylmae looked up from her plate and met his gaze. He was not pleased.
Oh, right. I’m supposed to be like Aina! Sylmae hoped Aina wasn’t doing anything weird or talking like her normal self with her family, either.
“My apologies,” Sylmae said, dabbing the corners of her mouth with her napkin in the most Aina-esque fashion she could imitate. “It seems I have more of an appetite than usual this morning.”
“Well, do be careful not to stuff yourself,” Aina’s mother said with what seemed like a permanent frown on her face. “Don’t forget that the Whitby family will be visiting today for a marriage interview, and you wouldn’t want to look fat in your dress.”
Sylmae almost choked on a raisin in her pastry.
As far as she knew, Aina was an only child. Her parents were clearly married to each other, so the only person here who would the marriage “interview” would be for...would be Aina.
“Mm-hmm, eat slower,” Aina’s father murmured, uninterested in the conversation, as he was absorbed in the newspaper in front of him.
“It will be your duty to entertain their eldest son, Frederick, in conversation, dance with him at the party tonight, and give a good first impression,” Aina’s mother continued. “The Whitbys are an influential family, and we need to get on their good side to expand our business interests.” She narrowed her eyes. “Just go along with what the boy asks of you.”
Did Aina have to do this sort of thing often? Sylmae couldn’t recall her ever mentioning it, but from this conversation, it sounded like this was nothing new.
Well, if she’s never told me about it, it can’t be that bad, she reasoned to herself.
Sylmae finished breakfast, and once she had permission to excuse herself, she returned to Aina’s room.
It was like the polar opposite of her own: a soft pastel pink, stuffed animals everywhere, large pillows in various other pastel colors, and a large bed. With a full stomach, Sylmae lay on the bed and sighed contentedly.
Her day went fairly smoothly from there. A maid knocked on the door to ask permission to enter and then brought her clothes for the day—and let her know that her evening dress would be prepared for her later in the day—and prepared the bath for her. Sylmae took her time in the bath, soaking in the warm water, until another maid knocked on the door to the large bathroom to remind her that her tutor would meet her in her room in half an hour. The tutor went over the history of magic, which Sylmae was only half-listening to, until he went into detail the differences in the different elemental types. Sylmae was already well-versed in earth magic, though she wanted to study all four elements, which her parents disapproved of.
“Hm, what’s with all the questions today?” the tutor asked. “Normally you roll your eyes the moment I mention water magic, specifically.”
Sylmae blinked in confusion. Did Aina not like water magic? It was her family’s specialty, so she should be really good at it. She knew her friend wanted to do more than just water magic, but why be antagonistic about it?
When she didn’t respond, the tutor shrugged. “Well, I appreciate your eagerness today! And I’m sure your parents will be thrilled to hear that fire magic is no longer something you’re obsessing over to the exclusion of the other three.
“Anyway,” the tutor continued with a throat-clearing cough, “that’s all the time we have for our lesson today. Your parents asked that I not go over the allotted time today, seeing as you have other engagements to prepare for. I’ll see you tomorrow, Aina.”
A maid brought a light lunch for her, and upon seeing the girl’s forlorn face, she smiled and apologized for the small meal, saying the lady of the house decided Aina’s lunch for her that day. Nonetheless, despite it being just a roast beef sandwich, Sylmae thought it was delicious, and the tea that accompanied it had just the right amount of sweetness. The same maid dropped by a few moments later with a cookie taken from the kitchen, holding a finger up to her lips and whispering that this was their secret.
How could Aina possibly complain about her life when she had delicious food like this, a cute bedroom, a luxury bathroom, and access to a magic scholar who could teach her far more than Sylmae could ever learn from her parents?
< To be continued… >
To see how this ends in Part Two, stay tuned for May's short story!