You want to write poetry about the curve of her spine in the moonlight, the warm flush on her skin, the rough pads of her slender fingers, the way her hair kinks after a long day in a braid.
You want to contrast the strength of her hands with the fragility of her ego, the warm laughter you sometimes coax out of her with the tears you've often seen her stepmother put in her eyes.
They call her Cinderella, but in your arms she's always Ella.
"Do you ever dream about more?" she asks on her third night with you, suddenly childlike in the way she draws her knees up to her chin.
"More than you have. More than you are. More than working for people who don't appreciate you, living with people who will never love you."
Suddenly she's talking more about herself than asking about you. Orphaned at a young age, you were taken in by the blacksmith's family. He taught you his craft for only two years before taking you on as a fully paid hire. You have your own room, your own horse. Life hasn't always been easy -- it still isn't always easy -- but your life isn't like Ella's. You're paid for all your hard work; you're cared for by the family that raised you.
"I want more for myself," you tell her, not afraid to be honest. Your fingers tangle in her long brown hair. "I want more for you."
"You're sweet." A sad smile quirks her lips. "I want that too."
You're prudent. You work hard and save your wages. You hone your skill and impress the king with your work on blades when he commissions a fine sword as birthday gift for his son.
One day soon you'll have the money to buy land to build a home of your own. You'll stand entirely on your own two feet. You'll have the income, the land, your name held in favor by the prince himself.
You've never mentioned it to her, but you're of marrying age. So is Ella. She wants more, and you could give it to her. No more sneaking around after her family goes to bed -- "Even evil needs sleep," she once told you, her voice barely more than a bitter whisper -- and no more looking over her shoulder and no more listening helplessly when she can't hold it in and needs to vent or cry.
If you know love at all, you love her.
Ella's family would be less of a problem if they had fewer powerful friends. It's a constant source of amazement to you that their friends and neighbors are so willing to passively tsk behind their backs or only do something nice for Ella when they think no one's looking.
You treat her stepmother and stepsisters with a cool civility when they pass you in the street, their elegant heeled winter boots clicking haughtily on the cobblestones.
She laces her fingers with yours. "What do you want most out of life?"
You don't know what to say. "I want a lot out of life." You want her -- so badly at times that you feel your heart will burst -- but you don't know just how high on the scale to place her. "Good health and happiness. Love. Recognition. A family, eventually." You hesitate before you go on, feeling you know her answer. "What about you?"
Humming thoughtfully, she rubs her thumb against the back of your hand. "I want to go far away and never come back."
It isn't the answer you expected, but the sentiment remains the same.
You start to wonder if leaving her family to marry you would be enough.
News of a winter ball at the castle sends ripples of excitement through the entire kingdom. Those who aren't invited want to be, and those who are spend weeks fretting over the perfect outfit, the perfect hairstyles, the perfect bow or curtsey for greeting the royal family at occasions like this one.
Your jaw comes dangerously near unhinging when a messenger arrives with an invitation for you, and that afternoon you catch Ella in the market with her usual covered basket. Her smudged cheeks are bright from the chill in the air and the shawl around her shoulders doesn't look like it provides any protection from the cold, but she lets out a small sound of surprise when you break from the usual public routine, her eyes wide as you catch her hand, and you twirl her grandly until a laugh rises from her throat.
You'd invite her to go with you -- you'd do it in a heartbeat -- if only you had permission to invite a guest along.
You barely refrain from kissing her cheek in front of everyone, and she's too aware of the eyes on her to ask what's prompted your behavior.
"Later," you whisper in her ear. "We'll talk."
She walks away with a little spring in her step that you have to take responsibility for, and it's even better than receiving an invitation to a royal ball.
When you find out she's working feverishly on altering dresses for her stepsisters in addition to her usual chores, you want to strike something. Ella scrunches her nose unhappily when you claim that you won't go to the ball if she can't attend.
She wants you to go. She wants you to promise to tell her all about it the next day.
You only see her once in the next two weeks, chancing upon her in the market again, and she extracts the promise from you a second time.
The castle interior is more opulent than in your wildest dreams. A small orchestra plays, each member dressed in identical black and white silks as fine as that of any guest in attendance. At first you pay strict attention as the arrivals of more important guests are announced, but you eventually tune them out as full skirts swirl on the dance floor and servants bring out platter after platter of fresh fruits and meat and bread. You're more sociable than you ever are on a normal evening; you discover elderberry wine agrees with you.
A lady smiles demurely at you over her feathered fan, and you find the boldness to approach her and ask if she dances.
She does. Quite well.
You dance with several pleasant partners and have conversations with more. The off-duty Captain of the Guard thrusts yet another goblet of wine into your hand, and you're gratified when he announces that he wants you to forge a new broadsword for him.
It's almost midnight when you notice the dance floor drawing an audience.
Time slows to an almost unbearable crawl.
You've always thought she was beautiful, but tonight she's more than that. Tonight you almost don't recognize her. Tonight she's clean and polished with jewels glinting in her dark hair. Tonight she's a vision in a white dress that knocks the breath out of your lungs, a goddess whose feet barely touch the ground.
Tonight there's a smile on her lips that's like nothing you've ever seen.
Suddenly incapable of words, you watch as she dances with the prince, of all people. You watch as the dance ends and she smiles shyly -- sweetly -- at him. You watch as he leads her off the dance floor and presses a goblet into her hand.
Somewhere along the line you remember the importance of breathing.
Maybe you've had too much of the wine, but you can't seem to stop staring. You almost want to believe it's the weight of your eyes on her that makes her turn your way when her conversation with Prince John is interrupted by a nobleman.
You've studied her face more than once, but now you can't decipher her expression. She laughs politely at something the nobleman says, and appearing to excuse herself, she comes straight toward you.
You don't even know where to start.
Holding her goblet in front of her, an odd shield, she opens her mouth and can't seem to find words for a moment. "How are you?"
As though you expected to see each other here. As though she's not almost unrecognizable, dressed like a princess, and dancing with royalty. You gape at her, astounded, infuriated, adoring. "I didn't expect to see you here."
She blushes prettily. "I didn't expect to be here."
You wonder why she sounds so nervous, so unsure. You wonder why she didn't tell you she'd be here.
She's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, and you think you may be sick.
When the ballroom's grand clock begins to chime, she startles, glancing up like a frightened deer. She looks at you without really seeing you, holding her goblet out until your hands automatically take it rather than let it fall and stain the front of your clothes.
She doesn't say anything else -- not even to the prince -- before she grabs handfuls of her thick layered skirt and holds it up enough to take off at an awkward sprint. The crowd murmurs in her wake, and the only thing you know is that you can't let her leave like that.
You're not the only one to weave through the throng and burst through the castle doors after her. Prince John braves the downpour outside mere seconds after you, just in time to see Ella pause beside a carriage, aim a grim look back toward the castle, and hurry inside, limping.
As the carriage spirits her away, your head swims from more than elderberry wine.
Taking a step down, the prince drops to one knee to pick up a dainty slipper that sparkles like crystal in the rain. "Do you know her?"
You aren't sure you do.