So This is Love – Elizabeth Lim

It was the event of the season—a royal ball in King George’s palace that every eligible maiden had been invited to attend. And Cinderella couldn’t believe she was going. One dance, she promised herself, watching the palace draw near from within her carriage. If I just have one dance . even if it’s by myself, I’ll be happy. I just want to remember what it’s like to be free, to spin round and round under the moonlight. The palace was tremendous, a city within itself; Cinderella could have spent the entire evening simply exploring the courtyard where her carriage dropped her off. But she’d arrived hours late, so late that there was no one at the entrance to greet her. Even the halls inside were empty but for the dozens of unsmiling guards standing against the walls. She didn’t have an invitation, so as she wandered up the grand staircase in search of the ballroom, she didn’t dare ask a guard for directions, lest they ask her to leave. If not for the charming young man who found her searching for the king’s party, she might have spent the entire night happily lost in the palace. “The ballroom is this way, miss,” he said, gently tapping her hand. Flustered, she whirled to face him.

She’d expected him to be one of the guards, but to her relief, he was a guest at the ball—like herself. “Oh, so it is. Thank you!” Her cheeks were already warm, flushed from climbing the endless staircase, but they seemed to grow hotter still. How foolish she must look. Why hadn’t she simply followed the music? She could hear the strains of the orchestra not far, and the low, dense murmuring of the king’s guests. But the young man made no indication that he thought her a fool. Maybe he was simply being polite; that would explain his squared shoulders and stiff posture. Yet his eyes were warm and kind, and as he bowed to her, something unfamiliar but wonderful fluttered in her stomach. “Thank you,” she said again, instinctively curtsying. “Would you . would you like to dance?” Cinderella blinked. “Did you read my mind?” she said with a soft laugh.

“All I wished for tonight was a dance . it’s been so long I worried I’ve forgotten how.” At that, the young man chuckled, and he seemed to relax, breaking the formality between them. A smile as warm as his eyes spread across his face and he offered her his arm. “Then allow me to remind you.” The next few minutes were a blur. A beautiful, rapturous blur, yet Cinderella knew she’d never forget the waltz that stirred the hall, its lilting melody singing its way deep into her heart. Nor would she forget the way her companion looked at her—as if there were no one else in the ballroom. Every now and then, he parted his lips as if he wanted to speak to her, but the music was so overwhelming he must have thought better of it. It was a miracle they hadn’t collided with anyone else dancing, or were they the only ones on the floor? Cinderella hardly noticed.

When the waltz ended, Cinderella braced herself to wake from the most beautiful dream. Murmurs of conversation replaced the orchestra’s lush music, a potpourri of perfumes thickened the air, and the chandeliers seemed to glow dizzyingly bright. She half expected her dance partner to make an excuse to leave, but instead he leaned in to whisper, “Do you want to walk outside for a short while? I’d love to show you the gardens.” Again, he’d read her mind. Or were they simply of one mind? Her father used to say that about himself and her mother, that from the moment they’d met it had felt like they’d known each other forever. Or maybe I feel that way because it’s been so long since I’ve made a friend, she thought as they left the palace. A cool breeze tickled her nape, and she inhaled, relishing the garden’s freshness. “It’s so peaceful,” she said, brushing her fingers across the finely pruned hedges. “Would it be awful if I told you I preferred it out here to the ballroom?” “And why is that?” She hesitated, wondering what he’d think of the truth. “I think I’m more comfortable around the flowers and the trees.

I haven’t been around so many people in a long time,” she admitted shyly. “I wouldn’t even know what to say to most of them.” “You didn’t come to the ball to meet the . to meet new people?” “I came to the ball mostly to watch. To listen to the music and see the palace. But I have to say, it’s even more beautiful out here than it is in there.” “It’s certainly not as stuffy.” They laughed together, and Cinderella felt that flutter in her stomach again. “I want to remember everything about tonight,” she said. “The waltz, the flowers, the fountains—” “And me?” her companion teased.

She smiled, but she was too shy to answer. Yes, she wanted to remember everything about him. The way he held her hand, gentle yet firm—as if he never wanted to let go. The way his shoulders lifted when she smiled at him, the tenderness in his voice when he spoke to her. But she didn’t even know his name. She should have asked when they first met, except her mind had been—and still was—in such a whirlwind. Besides, now that they had danced together and escaped the ballroom to this beautiful garden, it felt like they had gone on a grand adventure together, and she didn’t want to take a step back with pleasantries. And, if she was honest, she was also afraid he would ask where she was from. “What’s on your mind?” he asked, sensing her thoughts had escaped the present. “Simply that I don’t want tonight to end,” she replied.

He leaned closer, and Cinderella tilted her head, waiting for him to say something. But he closed his lips and cleared his throat, an odd flush coming over his cheeks. “I don’t, either.” He hesitated. “I’ve been away from Valors for years. Didn’t think I wanted to come home, but now I’m starting to change my mind.” “Oh? Where were you?” He blinked, as if surprised she didn’t know the answer, but he quickly recovered. “Away at school. It’s not a very interesting story. Come, would you like to walk more?” She nodded.

“I love it out here. Strange that there aren’t more people in the gardens. Are we the only ones?” “Everyone’s inside,” he responded. “Dancing?” “That . or looking to meet the prince.” “I see. Well, I’m glad to be out here. We used to keep a garden . not as magnificent as this, of course, but . oh!” Cinderella spied a path of rosebushes not far ahead.

“You like roses?” “Who doesn’t?” Cinderella knelt, careful that her skirts did not snag on the thorns. “My mother used to grow roses in her garden. We’d pick them together every morning.” She fell silent, remembering how she’d carried on the tradition with her papa after her mother died. One by one they’d cut the flowers, each still so fresh that dew glistened on its petals and trickled down her trembling fingers. “Eight pink roses, seven white ones, and three sprigs of myrtle,” she murmured, pointing at the pink and white roses in the line of bushes. “What is that?” “It’s what I would always bring Mama—the same arrangement my father presented to her when he’d asked her to marry him.” The story of their courtship had been her favorite, one Papa had told her over and over. She’d never tired of it, never stopped asking him to tell it to her. Before her mother had died, he’d always ended the story with a smile, saying, “Your mother is my true love.

” Once she was gone, his expression became solemn, shadows sinking into the lines of his brow, his teeth clenched tight to keep from grimacing. Then he would say, “Your mother was my true love.” So Cinderella had learned how one word could change everything. And she had stopped asking her father for the story. “I’d nearly forgotten about it,” she said softly, a strain in her voice. “It’s been so long. ” “Eight pink roses, seven white ones, and three sprigs of myrtle,” he repeated. “I’ll help you remember.” She looked up at him, a rush of warmth flooding her heart. How could it be that someone she’d known for only a handful of hours could already feel so dear to her? By the time they had strolled across the gardens, past the marble pavilions and sparkling ponds, taking a rest by the stairs—she’d completely lost track of time.

“There’s a part of the garden you haven’t seen that I know will make you smile. It’s a little far— are you tired?” “No, not at all.” He started to lead her toward it, but as she followed, Cinderella glanced behind her. “Wait, I want to take a moment to admire how beautiful this is.” He tilted his head. “What is there to admire?” “Everything. The towers, the trees, the scraps of curtain peeking out from the windows. Even the clouds.” Cinderella clasped her hands to her chest and turned toward Valors, watching the city sparkling below. “And if we look this way, what a view.

” “I’d never appreciated it much.” “I see the palace every day from my window, but seeing it from this angle is another story entirely,” Cinderella said. She leaned against the railing, admiring the glittering white palace and the garden skimming beneath it. “I don’t know the next time I’ll be back.” Then she sat on one of the steps, moving the folds of her gown to hug her knees close. “I used to dream about coming here. Strange to think I don’t have to do that anymore.” He knelt beside her, taking the lower step. “What other dreams do you have?” Cinderella paused. Before coming to the ball, she’d had so many dreams.

But they’d been simply that—dreams. Wishes, really, if she wanted to be honest about it; wishes about living a different life. She hadn’t even dared leave home, not until tonight. But she couldn’t tell him that. “I’d like to see more of the world,” she said slowly, “and I want to help people—” She stopped. She hadn’t given it much more thought than that. She didn’t even know what it meant to help people—besides, how could she, when she was trapped in her stepmother’s house? “Anything else?” Cinderella pursed her lips. After the ball, she might never get a chance to discuss such things with someone again. She’d go back to working for Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters, to being forgotten. “I’d like to remember what it’s like to be loved,” she finally confessed, staring at her hands.

As soon as she said it, she wished she could take it back. It sounded miserable, even to her ears. But she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had said anything kind to her, let alone held her hand and spent time getting to know her. To have to go back to mistreatment and neglect—it was last thing Cinderella wanted to think about. She wished this night could last forever. “You must think I’m hopeless,” she said quickly, before her companion could respond. “No. Not at all.” She didn’t dare look up at him, but he shifted closer to her so their fingertips nearly touched. “I can understand.

Sometimes, I wish that for myself, too.” He drew a deep breath. “My mother used to tell me that there are many kinds of love. Unconditional love, self-love, love for your family, love for your friends . romantic love.” He paused, seeming to search for the right words. “That all are important in fulfilling the heart. You say you haven’t been around people in a long time. For me, it’s the opposite. I’m surrounded by people, but few see past my .

my . ” “Your heart?” Cinderella asked. His mouth bent into an unreadable smile. “Yes, my heart,” he said softly. Then he kissed her. She’d never been kissed before, never been in love. Yet when his lips touched hers, something inside her bloomed, coming alive for the first time in years. In that moment, all her worries and troubles grew wings, leaving her with a rush of joy she hadn’t felt in a long time. Out of nowhere, a clock chimed, and her fairy godmother’s warning came rushing into her memory: At the stroke of twelve, the spell will be broken—and everything will be as it was before. Cinderella jolted, ending the kiss.

“Oh my goodness!” “What’s the matter?” “It’s midnight.” “Yes, so it is.” When she started to rise, he caught her hand. “But why—” Cinderella faltered. A hundred explanations spun in her head, but the only thing she could say was: “Goodbye.” “No, no, wait. You can’t go now, it’s only—” “Oh, I must.” Cinderella disentangled herself from his arms. “Please. Please, I must.

” “But why?” The clock chimed again, overpowering her sense. What could she say? “Well, I . oh, the prince! I haven’t met the prince.” “The prince?” His brows drew together. “Goodbye.” She ran as fast as she could through the gardens and the ballroom, stopping only briefly to wave goodbye to the guards waiting in the halls. Everyone seemed to want her to stay longer, but Cinderella ignored their cries. Even when she left her glass slipper on the staircase, she thought better of retrieving it. There was no time. Once she was in the carriage, it sped out of the palace, spiraling down the hill into Valors.

It was the longest minute of her life. Little by little, her sparkling ball gown sparkled no more, and when the clock finished blaring midnight, she was back in her rags, sitting on a pumpkin, surrounded by Bruno, her dog, and Major, her horse. She lurched, spying an oncoming coach speeding their way. As she bolted off the road, it trundled past, smashing her pumpkin under its horses’ hooves. Once it was out of sight, she caught her breath and knelt to pick up the mice that had served as her elegant horses. Her head swam, reliving the last few moments at the ball. She wished she could have stayed longer with that handsome stranger she’d met; oh, what a silly excuse she’d made to him. What did she care about meeting the prince? She shook her head, simmering with embarrassment. For better or worse, she didn’t think she would ever see him again. Despite all that, what a wonderful time she’d had.

To finally see the palace, with its glistening chandeliers, and all the beautiful gowns and the gardens. To drink in the ball’s romantic music. In the shadows, a glass slipper shimmered on her foot. She bent to pick it up. Strange, that everything should disappear except her glass slipper. She hugged it to her chest. Before this night, she hadn’t thought magic would ever touch her life. None of this would have been possible without her fairy godmother. She gazed at the stars twinkling above her. Somehow, she knew her godmother was listening.

“Thank you so much . for everything.” Carefully, she tucked her glass slipper into her pocket. At least she would have it to remind her of what a beautiful night it had been. Her fairy godmother’s spell had been broken. Tomorrow, everything would go back to the way it was before. Her stepmother would go back to ordering her around the chateau, her stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella, to tormenting her over every one of their needs, but she’d caught a glimpse of happiness, something she hadn’t felt in many years. Her eyes had opened to the possibility of leaving home, of dreaming dreams that might actually come true. But she wasn’t brave enough to chase them—not yet. Not so soon, anyway, after such a magnificent night.

What she didn’t realize was—she might not have a choice

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