I think everyone is enjoying themselves. The ballroom and grounds were quite beautiful. Lanterns and candlelight, fountains and perfectly trimmed shrubs, and lilting orchestral music set the tone for a wonderful night. But, where was she?
My father had introduced me noble after noble, princess after princess, and still no sign of Ella. There is only a couple of hours until midnight and I’m not sure how long I’ll wait before I sneak back up to my tower. I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the night when the person who makes me feel like it’s all worth it hasn’t walked through the door. Once she found out I am the prince she’d probably run for the hills anyway. No one wants this kind of life, especially with someone like me.
“Your highness, your father would like you to start dancing with the young ladies if you think you’re up to it.” Captain Samson whispers as he comes up behind me.
I nod my head because what else am I supposed to do? He gives me a little nudge and off I go. A princess that my father thinks would be an advantageous marriage for the kingdom stands a few feet away and keeps looking at the dancefloor during her conversation with some other noblemen. I go through the motions of bowing and asking her to dance, extending my hand with a smile on my face. I lead her to the dancefloor and away we spin, turning and swaying to the music along with everyone else. I somehow manage to lose myself in the song and I don’t notice that most people on the dancefloor have stopped their own twirling around until I feel the princess in my arms stiffen and stop. I look at her and see her dark brown eyes are focused on the grand staircase. I turn around and instantly lose my ability to think.
Standing at the top of the staircase is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Her long, blonde hair is perfectly curled and adorned with something that sparkled like diamonds in the light. Her royal blue ball gown sparkled like the rest of her making her look like the princess she had to be. As she walked down the stairs, I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be glass slippers. She was beautiful, regal, and pure magic. Instantly any and all problems I had being here melted into the back of my mind.
I left the princess standing in the middle of the floor and walked to the end of the staircase. Ella had already managed to find me in the crowd and watches as I came to intercept her, before anyone else got brave enough to whisk her away to the dancefloor. On the last stair, I extend my hand and she gives me hers in return. I bow and she curtsies in return and I twirl her swiftly to ballroom floor. My white and blue suit went perfectly with her, like we had planned it. Like we belonged here together.
“You made it.” I finally manage to say.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Although, if I had known who you were in the woods the other day, I might have managed myself a little differently.” She blushes and looks away as she says it.
“Ella, I would not have had it any other way. And I believe you would have acted the very same if you had known.” She smiles and I swear it’s contagious.
I can feel everyone staring at us, and I know she feels it, too. At the end of the song, I take her hand and lead her outside to the gardens. I watch as her eyes light up with wonder like a little girl. The garden is magical, like little fairies had chosen this place as their home and decorated it like a star.
“Do you ever get used to all the people staring at you constantly?”
She’s still twirling around, taking in the scene, and I can tell she’s starting to calm down from having all eyes on her. Definitely not a princess or noble, then.
“Honestly, I don’t even notice it anymore. They’re staring at their charming prince, not me. At least, that’s how I see it.”
“That kind of makes sense, actually. I’m not used to anything like that. But, my family is in there and I can’t let them see me here. They wouldn’t understand and I couldn’t stay here.”
“Then it’s a good thing there is a lot of garden to see.” She smiles and starts walking down the pathway. She waits for me to catch up with her and we take off.
We talk about everything. Slowly, and obviously both keeping details to ourselves, we let each other in. I let her know about my feelings towards being prince, and she lets me know about her feelings towards her stepmother. We’re both scared of our families, but for different reasons. They both rule our lives, but that has affected us both completely differently. We may have both shrunk in on ourselves, but Ella only lets it show when her stepfamily is concerned. Me, well, I’ve been putting on this whole façade of a different person for years. I had no reason to be jealous of a person with obvious problems of their own, but I wished I had learned to handle myself differently. Ella had been raised in a completely different life, with loving parents who instilled a strong spirit inside of her. Her spirit may be faltering, but mine has left me behind. Until I met her.
Now it feels like that spirit is peeking around a corner a few miles ahead, looking back at me.
“And that’s why they call me Cinderella.”
“So, I should definitely start calling you that, right?” She gives me a nudge and we both start laughing. It’s so easy with her. Being Theo is so easy with her. But, I still feel that hollowness in my chest that reminds me it’s not that easy to be back.
We’re sitting on a bench in the last section of the garden, admiring the blooms, fairy lights, and the fountain when the clock strikes midnight. Ella bolts upright.
“It’s midnight already? Oh, no. Theo, I’m so sorry, I have to go now.” She picks up her skirts and starts heading towards the opening between the two hedges.
“Ella, it’s okay, it’s only midnight. We have plenty of time!’
“Time is always our worst enemy isn’t it? We think we have plenty of it but it’s never enough. I had a wonderful time tonight, I truly did. Thank you for everything. And if you’re ever in my woods again, well, maybe I’ll be there.” This time she scurries off before I can say another word.
The clock strikes again before I convince myself to go after.
Again before I actually make myself run to her.
I run through the rest of the garden and see her entering the ballroom. How is she so fast in a gown and glass slippers? By the time I make it to the entryway, she’s already disappeared through the crowd or another door. I quickly walk through the party, avoiding everyone that looks like they want to talk or dance. Two frilly young ladies in purple and green try to whip me around, back and forth between the two of them before Captain Samson intervenes and releases me from their sweaty clutches. He catches up with me in seconds.
“That girl. She was the one from the woods, wasn’t she?” I just nod my head and keep walking as quickly as I can without drawing too much attention. I have to get to her. “Can we not just go to her tomorrow, Theo?”
“That would be a great idea. If I knew anything about her other than her first name and the wicked name her stepfamily calls her, I would say yes.” The Captain heaves a great sigh and we both put some more hustle into our step as we reach the large staircase that leads from the palace gates to the carriage roundabout.
There, we find Ella, racing down the stairs towards a magnificent golden carriage that has been made to look like a giant pumpkin. As she makes her way down, she runs out of one of her glass slippers. Looking back towards her shoe, she sees Samson and myself coming towards her. Leaving me and her shoe behind, she makes it down the last few stairs and enters her carriage.
We get to where her shoe rests on the stair, still perfectly intact and shining like the full moon above. As I pick up the shoe, the final strike of midnight chimes and Ella’s carriage is already out of sight.