The first place where they stopped to ask questions was a place Cinder remembered. Old Lark, the master of this workshop, had been his father's teacher once, and Cinder had known him since childhood. Which wasn't to say that he had seen him in the past two or three years. He only hoped the old man was indeed still running the shop, and nobody else had taken over the place.
"Good morning," he said as he entered, looking around the room. It still looked the same as the last time he had been here, the same organized chaos; the perfect opposite to Cinder's neatly-arranged workplace. Shoes and tools, pieces of wood and leather and metal lay scattered all over the floor, mingling with loose pieces of paper with scribbles and sketches on them. There was no sign of the owner anywhere. He had to be in the backroom again, as usual.
"Master Lark?" he called inside.
There was a shuffle of footsteps, then a curtain opened, and out came Lark the shoemaker. The past few years had barely changed him; he was still the same scrawny old man, lanky for a commoner, his gray hair messy and darkened from work in places. His skin was still as weathered as ever, and the dark eyes in his wrinkled face had lost none of their spark.
"Cinder!" he exclaimed, tossing aside his work and laughing. "Why, it's Cinder! You've grown so big! How are you doing?"
Cinder looked aside, unsure how to answer that question. "Well enough," he said vaguely. "What about you?"
"Oh, you know, same as ever." Lark gestured around the workshop. "Always busy, always something to do. It's what keeps me young!"
Cinder didn't answer. Part of him wondered if he should try to smile, just out of politeness, but he didn't feel up to it. He rarely felt much like smiling these days.
Clearing his throat, Lark sobered up, regarding his former pupil's son with curious eyes. "But never mind," he said. "What brings you here today?"
Cinder looked over his shoulder to Gemstone. "We have a question to ask you."
Looking past his shoulder, Lark caught sight of the prince for the first time. "Who's that?" he asked. "Friend of yours?"
"Just an acquaintance," Cinder said as dismissively as he could, solely to see the look of annoyance on the prince's face.
Needless to say, it worked like a charm. Scowling at him, Gemstone stomped up to Cinder's side, pushing himself in front of him and pulling out his shoe. "I'm looking for the owner of this."
"Oh my! Did someone lose it?" With one hand Lark took the shoe from his hands while the other felt around on a shelf for his small gold-framed eyeglasses. "What a fine piece of work, too! The owner must miss it badly."
Gemstone's face fell. "So you didn't sell it?"
"Me? Goodness, no; I'd remember selling such a fine specimen, lad." Lark examined the shoe through his glasses. "What a small marvel! Buckskin, from the looks of it, but dyed black so expertly you couldn't tell it's not natural. And the seams!" He traced his finger along them. "If I didn't know better, I'd say no human hand could make them so fine."
Cinder stared at the window. Sugar Plum's face was flashing before his eyes.
Gemstone leaned closer, trying to see what Lark saw. "So they're expensive?"
"That's one way to put it, lad! I'd say they cost a fortune," the old man laughed. "Whoever bought and lost them must've been rich…or supported by someone very rich."
"The godmother," Gemstone muttered. Cinder grimaced. If only the prince knew how right he was.
"D'you know who sold them?" Gemstone asked, straightening, grabbing Lark by the shoulder with an urgent squeeze. "Anyone who might know who they belong to?"
The prince's arm dropped limply to his side.
"I do know they must've been made in the region somewhere," Lark said, smiling apologetically. "And there aren't too many shoemakers who have the skill and resources to make works like this. But that's all I can say. I'm sorry."
"Nothing beyond speculation. But, sir…" He handed back the shoe. "Why don't you ask around the noble houses? Nobody could afford this without at least getting help from them."
Gemstone pondered the idea, then he sighed. "I know the noble houses," he said. "I've never seen that person with any of them."
"So you've seen the owner?"
"Yeah! We danced together at the ball until he disappeared." Gemstone's eyes shone. "He was about my age, this tall, wiry, brown skin, black hair, black eyes…intense and beautiful." He gave a wistful sigh. "D'you know anybody like that?"
Cinder swallowed as the old master's eyes immediately landed on him.
Don't say it, he thought. Don't say it.
"Why," said Lark, oblivious, "that almost sounds like our Cinder, doesn't it?"
"No!" Cinder and Gemstone burst out in unison, though for totally different reasons.
"I didn't go to the ball," Cinder lied.
"And the personalities are totally different," Gemstone added, not knowing better.
"Hmm. Is that so? Pity, then." Lark put his glasses back on the shelf. "You should really learn to have fun a little, lad. Go out sometime, let loose! You're only young once!"
Cinder didn't meet his eyes. "I don't like socializing," he said. "And I don't have time. Or money for good clothes."
Lark's smile faded. Instead the expression in his eyes turned to sympathy. "You're still so serious."
"Someone has to be."
"Alright, alright! You haven't changed at all, eh?" Lark gestured around the messy workshop. "Anything else I can help you with?"
Cinder exchanged a glance with Gemstone. The prince shook his head.
"Nothing," Cinder said, bowing. "Thanks, Master Lark. We'll keep searching."
"Surely, surely! You should visit again sometime." Lark gave him a hearty pat on the back. "Send my regards to Hestia and your sisters!"
"Stepsisters," Cinder corrected him as he and Gemstone walked out through the door.
"Who was that?" the prince asked him as they continued on their way. "Some guy you know?"
Cinder nodded, counting the streets they passed to find the correct turn. "He was my father's mentor," he said.
There was a long pause. So long, in fact, that Cinder finally grew impatient and turned around to glare at Gemstone. "What?" he snapped.
"Nothing!" the prince shot back. "Just wondering."
"Your dad." Cinder flinched, and Gemstone continued, "Where is he? I haven't seen him around the house."
Not your business, a voice screamed in Cinder's head. Not your business. Not your business. Not your business!
"Absent," he said out loud. His voice came out sharp and cold, cutting off all further questions, all attempts at conversation. He only hoped Gemstone would get the hint and not poke any further.
Thankfully, surprisingly, he didn't. And so they walked in silence until finally Cinder led them away from the road and towards a fence surrounding a snow-covered field.
Catching up to him, Olive eyed the fence, then Cinder, looking surprised. "Through here?" she asked.
Cinder nodded. "It's a shortcut."
"But it's fenced," she said. "Are you sure the owner will let us pass?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "I used to pass through here all the time," he said. "The owner doesn't mind."
So, one by one, they climbed over the fence and ventured out into the field. It was slower than expected, making their way through the inches and inches of snow, often sinking in ankle-deep or deeper. Cinder led the way. He knew these fields like the back of his hand. He hadn't been there in years, but he had walked this way so often that he hadn't forgotten a single inch.
That is, unless a flock of white shapes appeared in the distance that didn't look much like the snow.
"What's wrong?" Gemstone asked beside him. "Got us lost after all?"
Cinder lifted a hand. He narrowed his eyes. The white shapes were coming closer. Close enough to make out wings, beaks, and long feathery necks.
A realization struck him.
Barely a second later, a realization also struck the geese. There was a great honking and chattering, and suddenly the whole flock was moving towards them at a frightening speed.
"Run," he said to his companions, spinning around where he stood. "Now."
"What?" Gemstone answered, looking back and forth between him and the birds. "What's wrong?"
Moments later the geese were upon them. Cinder made directly for the nearest fence, but the birds were on his heels, angry and honking and snapping at him. Gemstone and Olive were following him at a distance. They were surrounded by geese, swatting and batting them off to no avail.
"Ow!" the prince screamed, letting out a most undignified yelp as a goose bit him. "Get off me! Get off me, you monsters!"
"What's all this ruckus about?"
Cinder winced. The voice behind them did not belong to the old farmer. Instead it was unfamiliar and very, very angry.
"Out with ya!" he yelled, waving a shovel behind them. "Get ya off my land, ya rascals! Don'cha think of stealin' any o' me fowl!"
They ran faster. One by one they leaped over the saving fence, plopping down on the ground and catching their breaths beyond.
"Nice shortcut, bastard!" Gemstone spluttered as soon as he could breathe again. "You never said there were geese here!"
"I didn't know!" Cinder shot back. "There never used to be any!"
"Some of them bit me!"
Cinder collapsed forward, groaning in frustration. "I told you to run from the geese!"
Gemstone crossed his arms. "I'm a prince," he declared. "I don't run from a bunch of birds!"
"Anyone with an ounce of common sense would run from a bunch of geese! They're murderous abominations who know neither mercy nor remorse!"
"I've never handled a goose before! How should I know that, jerk?"
"There's this useful thing called a survival instinct! In most people it would say that a swarm of honking feathers is out to murder you, so you better get away as fast as possible!"
"You could just throw them," Olive piped in.
Both Cinder and Gemstone stared at her like she had grown a second head. She grinned, visibly enjoying the reactions.
"I'm not making this up!" she said, planting her hands on her hips. "When the goose comes at you, you pick it up by the neck, fling it away, then run in the opposite direction. It's actual advice."
"Advice for people with no will to live, maybe," Cinder snarked.
Olive laughed out loud. "It's obviously useless against this many geese. But you can still take note. You know, in case you get attacked by a goose again."
Cinder gave a snort. "I'll remember it."
Gemstone eyed his wounds. There were blue bruises all over his hands, and it looked like he had been bitten in the legs too. "I don't wanna get attacked by geese again in the first place," he said. "Once was enough."
"For a lifetime," Cinder agreed.
"This is still your fault."
"Like hell it is!"
"But, you know…"
The childlike pout disappeared from Gemstone's face, making way to a smirk, then a grin, then a barely suppressed laugh.
"I've never run away from geese before," he said. "Can we try sheep next?"
Cinder gaped at him, unsure what to feel. He was torn between slamming his head against the fence and…and laughing along?
He hadn't felt like laughing in a long, long time.
Probably the relief, he thought. He had heard that after a shock had passed, people often felt the urge to laugh.
"You're impossible," he said, rising to his feet and extending a hand to pull the prince up. "Get up before you catch a cold, moron."
Gem took it and stood.
"I bet I could deal with sheep better," he declared. "Just you watch me."