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The Roads not Taken

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1. Love and service in Golden Age

Cinderella understood the power of domesticity. The ceremonial way the tea was served to the guest, the manner in which conversation started and stopped; these are just small matters, but they could count in the hour when you least expected it. Cinderella knew this as the secretary to Lady Charmaine, the most powerful woman in the city.

Cinderella came in the Lady's study with a teapot and frowned at the dark eye circles under her lady's eyes.

"Long night?"

"The tyrant never has time to rest," the Lady said

Cinderella poured tea into her lady's favourite cup, put down the teapot, and then carefully handed the tea cup to her. The tea was kept at the right temperature, the right favour and the right kind of amount for the Lady, because the Lady deserved the best for her. Her lady took it overm held the cup comfortably and sipped from it. "What would I do without you?"

"It's my honour to serve you, my lady."

Her lady put down the cup, handing the scrolls on the desk to her. "Take a look, and then we can discuss the matter at hand."  Her hands slightly brushed Cinderella's. Cinderella withdrew her hands slowly, mesmerized by the touch. She stored it in the treasure box of her memory, jealously kept and never disclosed to the others.

Cinderella then discussed the official affair with the Lady. She knew that sometimes the Lady only wanted someone to listen, to help her reflect; sometimes she wanted an opinion. The way of a successful secretary was to know when. Years of cooperation taught her that. When the night was deep, the Lady and her walked out, with Cinderella a step behind, because it was the right way to do things.

There was a proper way to do things in the world. She served her lady willingly, because it was her place and she was proud of it. Love, though it came unexpectedly, also had to be conducted in the right way.

Because no one could love a lady as well as her secretary.


2. Where Dragons walk with men

 

After a day of tedious meeting with her army superiors, Cinderella only wanted to relax. She went to her golden dragon Titan at the stable to groom it. She could let others do it, but she'd rather do it herself because she knew that her dragon loved her touch.

"Captain!" came a familiar voice. Cinderella turned to the source of the voice and already knew that it was Charmaine, one of the best soldiers working in her team.

Cinderella's eyes softened as she nodded, signalling Charmaine to be at ease. Then she joined Charmaine in taking care of their respective dragons. There was a comfortable silence between them as they were used to being together.

Then Charmaine broke the silence. "Last time, at the field, did I..."

Cinderella remembered the battle. It was a blood victory for her side. Cinderella pointed her dragon at the enemy while she heard a familiar groan. She quickly turned her head and saw that Charmaine took the shot targeted at her. When she'd dropped, Cinderella 's heart nearly jumped out of her body. But she was the commander so she could only let others take care of Charmaine. When the battle ended, after she rushed handling the matters, she went to Charmaine's side.

Charmaine was whispering something. Cinderella had to lean her ear to Charmaine's mouth to listen.

"Captain, is she... all right?"

"I'm all right. Thank you." Cinderella said. Charmaine was the one hurt, and she still cared about her captain.

Then Charmaine continued, "Captain, you were like a dream to me, a star... I..."

"All right. Sleep, soldier."

Charmaine followed the order and fell to sleep. When she was taken away, Cinderella rode her dragon back and didn't know how to think.

She loved Charmaine, that she knew, and the feeling seemed to be returned...

No, the rumours would destroy Charmaine. People would say that Charmaine slept her way to her post, and she didn't deserve that.

Cinderella 's mind returned from the memory. "No, you did nothing a soldier wouldn't do."

"Thank you, Captain." Charmaine's eyes shadowed, face perfectly neutral, the manner distant and polite and Cinderella was unable to decipher what she thought. "Please allow me to leave."

"Permitted," Cinderella said. When Charmaine walked away, Cinderella look at her back until she went for long. Then she turned back to her dragon. Cinderella put on the face of the usual stern captain she was. She had an oath to keep. If her heart was the price, then so be it.


3. Mage: the Awakening

 

Cinderella opened the door of the study, knowing that Charmaine would be there as usual. She wasn't disappointed. Cinderella looked around the study. The stack of books that accompanied her in sleepless hours, the comfortable armchair that she would sit and lean on Charmaine in cozy talk,  the globe that Cinderella made as a gift. Finally she returned her gaze to Charmaine. 

"Have you already decided?" Charmaine asked.

"Yes."

Charmaine turned pale and said, "Are you really leaving me?"

Cinderella said firmly, "Yes, I'm leaving you."

"Why?" Charmaine looked heartbroken. Cinderella felt her heart nearly torn apart too. But she knew that this was the right decision. She knew that Charmaine would understand eventually.

It would be hard for both of them, as Charmaine was not only a master, but also the best teacher and lover she'd hoped to have. Under Charmaine, Cinderella learned the joy of decoding ancient alchemy texts and explored the never ending field of magic. She also learned how to open her heart to let others in, how to be proud to be a woman. She knew Charmaine loved her, and she loved her too. But that was why she had to leave.

"I owe you too much. There may be love between us, but it can't survive if we're not able to be peers. I'll return when I can stand shoulder with shoulder to you," Cinderella said.

Charmaine must have seen the determination in her eyes, because she turned quiet. Then she spoke, "I'll wait for it,"

Cinderella left, without daring to even to look back. A glance and she would lose the courage to go.

"I'll be back." She repeated and repeated the words in her heart, like a mantra.


4. Steampunk Regency AU, with Airship!

 

"Good bye, Miss Rowse! Miss Kingston" The local people waved at them from the ground below. When Cinderella drove the airship into the sky, the people waving their hands grew smaller and their cheer fainter, until Cinderella couldn't see them any more."

"They like you." Charmaine smiled at her

"They like you more, because your machine helped with their harvest."

"It's just... nothing." Charmaine blushed slightly though

"The mayor didn't think that. He was about to propose to you on behalf of his son."

"Don't joke like that!" Charmaine protested. "By the way, where do you want to go?"

"South. The winter's warmer there."

"It's great as long as you go with me."

When she'd returned from war in Spain, Cinderella had been penniless and trying to support her family. She knocked on a lot of doors, but the employment opportunities were close to her. No one would hire an ex-soldier even with the recommendation from her sergeant. Then when she was about to give up, she met Charmaine when she stopped a burglar from robbing into Charmaine's house. Grateful, Charmaine offered her a job as an assistant. When she kissed Charmaine's hand to show her gratitude, Cinderella was surprised that her hands are rough with signs of years of handling tools.

Cinderella only grasped the whole nature of the job when Charmaine led her through the workshop, talking about the unfinished projects like her own child.There were all kind of tools, big and small, metal and wooden, and some Cinderella didn't recognize. Cinderella had a moment of hesitation, as she found Charmaine a bit queer - a lady who worked on war machine and all kind of things in her workshop. But she stayed because she didn't have a choice anyway.

"Look, Cinderella! This's my new plan!" Charmaine almost physically pulled Cinderella to the workshop, where a sketch of the complete design was on the desk.

"What's the use of it?" Cinderella asked. She asked more to see Charmaine's excitement than really wanting to know, but she didn't want to know the real reason about it.

"I'd call it an air ship. It functions by..."

Cinderella let the words flow by her, and only asked when Charmaine was out of breath,"So it can fly? And people can control it like a horse?"

"Exactly!"

"What do you want to do with the air ship?"

"To see the world, of course! I have so many places that I want to go, so many things to see, and also there're so many uses for it. It'll provide a new form of transport to carry people to whee they're needed and save lives."

"Do you want to share it with the public?"

"Of course, I hope everyone can use it, poor or rich, man or women, ..."

Cinderella looked at the spark in Charmaine's eyes and heard her passion to people. At that moment Cinderella knew she 'd fallen in love with her. A hopeless love.

The barriers between them were impenetrable. She was an Irish Catholic commoner. Charmaine was an English Anglican Lady. The law alone forbade then from being together officially. And the rumours! Their marriage would be seen as disgrace to Charmaine and her family. Charmaine would be driven out of the Society. There was no way they could be accepted.

There was only one way to go. She had to leave, before she was consumed by the love. She could see the tears in Charmaine's eyes when she told her she was leaving, but she said nothing. Then Charmaine suddenly said, "Remember, wherever you go, there 'll always be someone for you, if you want it."

Cinderella only nodded, not daring to trust herself.

Fate had other idea for them though, and the nefarious plan of a Russian spy brought them together again

When Charmaine woke up again, her eyes were in shock and she held Cinderella's hand tight. "I'm not going to let you leave me again. I adore you."

Cinderella knew that she couldn't bear to leave her again. But could their love have a future?

"There were no places for us to be together," she'd argued.

"Then why don't we create such a place for us? It's great as long as you go with me."

That had been the beginning of their airship journey. Although Cinderella missed her family sometimes, she knew that they were well cared for. Besides, she had to say she'd discovered her inner wanderlust when she saw more of the world.

The sky had no border, just liked love, Cinderella thought when she focused on piloting to another destination.