For three days they were stuck in that inn, unable to get anything done and unable to leave. Cinder offered to seek out the local shoemaker himself, but Gem refused to yield the shoe no matter how hard he pestered him. So there they were, doing nothing, letting precious time go to waste unused.
At least Gem didn't get any sicker. On the contrary, his cold was indeed a mild one, and with rest and loads of hot tea and chicken soup he got better by the day. Cinder kept watch beside his bed until he was convinced he'd be all right, then retired to his room, reading through every book he could borrow from the innkeeper. They were all bad mysteries and worse romances, but they were better than nothing, and certainly leagues better than being alone with his thoughts.
He didn't even get to talk to Oliver much. The knight, Olive again by now, spent most of the three days out and about after agreeing with Cinder that since they wouldn't use any more shortcuts, horses were in order. Of course, that left Cinder alone with Gem; but thankfully they didn't talk any more than necessary.
Then the prince was fully recovered, and it was finally time to continue the journey.
"I got us the best horses I could find," Olive explained, leading them to the inn's stables. "Don't worry about the price, Cinder. My brother will repay me as soon as we're back home."
"Like you even need that money," Gem remarked, pulling a face at her.
"What was that? You said you'd add interest?"
Olive smiled innocently, making Gem shrink back. "Stupid sister," he grumbled, pouting. "Always trying to get my money."
Two servants opened the stable doors before them, bowing low. Olive motioned to a trio of horses standing nearby. One was large and snowy white, all long limbs and dignified grace; that was obviously meant to be Gem's. Another was of a similar height but dark brown and heavier, clearly bred to carry knights with weapons and armor. The third was slightly smaller but all the more fiery, its fur and eyes shiny and black as the night.
Cinder stepped up to it. The slender animal snorted in his face, shaking its mane and stomping its hooves. He swallowed. Of course he knew how to handle a horse, even ride one, but that didn't mean he had ever been too fond of any animal larger than him.
Beside him Gem was in the middle of saddling up his horse already. "What," he asked, watching Cinder hesitate, "are you scared of horses?"
Cinder tensed and scoffed; like hell he'd admit to any of his weaknesses in front of Gem. "In your dreams."
"You are scared!" Gem went on. "Look at that, is poor wittle Cinder scared of the big angry horsey?"
Cinder turned to snap a response at him and nearly got knocked out by the black horse shaking its head.
"Traitor," he whispered to the animal, taking the equipment Olive handed to him. The horse didn't seem to like having any of it be put on its body. Several times it struggled and resisted, and it wasn't until Cinder sighed and spoke to it again that it finally calmed down.
"Look here," he said quietly. "I'd hate having this thing put on me too, but if you hold out and let me, you can move around outside all day. Deal?"
"Ew, Olly," Gem said behind his back, "the weird man's talking to a horse."
"The weird man's about to strangle you with a stirrup," Cinder said without looking away from his horse. The animal had finally decided to hold still, as if understanding his words.
"There," he said to the horse, leading it out of the stable by the reins a moment later. "Good girl."
They mounted and set out. Cinder led the way, though his struggles with the black horse still weren't finished. It was dancing this way and that, hither and thither, constantly searching for an excuse to break out and run at full speed into the fields. To his relief, Gem didn't have the easiest time with his own horse either. The great white mare was constantly trying to lower her head to stick her nose into the snow and sneak a mouthful of the grass underneath.
"Don't laugh at my riding! At least mine's just nervous," Cinder remarked over his shoulder. "Your Highness is stuck with hungry old Lazybones."
"Hey, it's not my fault they didn't feed her enough!" Gem shot back. "I bet your horse is just nervous because you're so grumpy and scary!"
Olive let go of the reins and led her huge war-horse with only her legs. It followed every shift of her body with perfect obedience. "You're both amateurs."
"Look at me, the nobleman who can afford his own horse," Cinder mocked.
"Carriages are way better anyway!" Gem crossed his arms for a second and could barely stop his horse from having an extended snack by the roadside. "They don't try to eat all the time, for starters."
"They're still drawn by horses," Olive replied. "We're just cutting out the middleman."
"The middleman is there for a reason!"
"Not on streets like this, boys." Olive led her horse around them in zigzag lines. "Shut up and enjoy the ride, no pun intended."
Cinder sighed and focused on his own horse. At first he still led the way, then, as the restless animal calmed down, he fell back to ride beside Olive. No reason for him to ride ahead while there was only this one road they could possibly follow.
"So," he said, hoping he didn't say anything extremely stupid, "you're Olive again then?"
The knight nodded. "As you can see."
"So you…" Cinder searched for the right word. "Transform…like that every time?" He still couldn't believe there had been no magic at play, which was precisely why he was asking all this. "How does it work?"
"A bunch of costume and makeup tricks, obviously."
Cinder stared, and Olive burst out laughing. "It's quite simple once you figure it out," she explained. "Bind the chest, wear clothing that changes the silhouette, the right makeup in the right places, masculine hairstyle, and there we go. Did I pass well?"
"Very," Cinder said, barely believing his ears.
"Good!" She laughed again. "Those ten years of practice have got to be good for something!"
Cinder stared into the distance, both relieved and confused that there was no magical explanation. Then he realized something else. "Your voice," he said.
"I change pitch when I'm Oliver." Olive smirked. "Also years of practice."
Cinder gaped in awe.
"That's right," Gem's voice came from Olive's other side. "Olly's way better than you."
"Nobody asked you," Cinder replied at once.
"I know, but I gave you that info for free anyway." Gem stuck up his nose. "Am I not generous?"
"…You want the polite answer to that or the honest one?"
"Hey! What the hell does that mean?"
"Nothing. One way or another, the answer is no."
Olive fell back. Cinder's horse began to dance again, edging closer to Gem, and suddenly they were riding right beside each other, so close their legs almost touched.
"I'll ride ahead again," Cinder said.
"No way," Gem replied at once. "I should be leading."
"You can't even lead your stupid horse," Cinder deadpanned. "Shut up."
"Sure can! Has it tried anything even once since I—hey! You did that on purpose!" Gem spluttered, trying to stop his mare from bursting forward after Cinder had reached back and slapped its behind. "Just you wait, you bastard!"
He tried to retaliate, but Cinder saw it coming and led his horse away. Gem began to pursue him. Cinder sped up, then slowed down, always dodging until they were chasing each other back and forth across the road.
Finally Cinder stopped, forcing his horse to stay on the spot with some difficulty. "Stop messing around," he said. "That's enough."
Gem's face dropped visibly. "Why?"
"This is turning into more stupid nonsense." Cinder's grip tightened on the reins. "Are you planning to get sick again? Leave it. Let's travel and be done with it."
Deep down, Cinder admitted, he himself regretted having to stop this game. A silly thought. He knew he couldn't take responsibility if Gem wound up getting another cold—let alone anything worse. And he definitely didn't want to be stuck at an inn with him for several days again.
Besides, all these games and childish competitions were becoming too much. He needed to distance himself before Gem's sense of fun became contagious, and he ended this journey as a stupider person than he had begun it.
He didn't need to change. He didn't need to have fun with silly competitions. Certainly not with this person. Gem wasn't worth changing for. He was just a temporary guest in his life, nothing more.
"You're so boring," Gem said, continuing the ride normally. "How can a single person be as boring as you?"
Cinder didn't answer. He was tempted to make a snappy response as usual, but that, too, was becoming dangerous. He was enjoying their banter too much. It wasn't even that he liked Gem, or at least he didn't think he did; the prince was just a rewarding person to mess with, and that was bad enough. He might grow attached. And that was the one mistake he definitely wouldn't make anymore.
The rest of the world didn't care after all, so why on earth should he?
The road took a curve, and a wide, flat landscape opened up before them. The way ahead stretched towards the horizon in a nearly straight line, forming a treacherously short connection between them and the great wide world.
"Hey," Gem said, "let's race."
Cinder wanted to tell him off, but he didn't have time to react. Before he could craft a response, Gem had already kicked his heels into his mare's side and sped off. "Race you to that tree over there!"
"Idiot! Don't speed off on your own!" Cinder called after him, but Gem didn't seem to hear. With a curse he spurred his own horse and let it run free, standing up in the saddle to chase after the runaway prince.
Gem's horse was large, but Cinder's was faster. Within moments he had caught up, shouting over the wind and the galloping hooves to try and get him to stop. Gem either didn't hear or didn't listen. Somewhere behind them Olive was following, but her heavy steed couldn't nearly keep up with their speed.
"You idiot, what are you thinking?" Cinder snapped. "You can't run away from your bodyguard without warning!"
"Can't I?" Gem turned towards him. "But I'm having so much fun!"
And it was obvious that he was. His cheeks were red from the cold and the wind. His eyes were glowing with joy, a simple childlike cheer, gleaming like this was the best time he had had in his life. The smile on his face was free from all signs of smugness, showing only the utmost honesty.
It was hard to scold him, Cinder found, when he was looking like that.
"You should have some fun too, Grumpyface," Gem continued, still without a hint of malice. "Isn't this a ton of fun?"
And, despite himself, Cinder listened.
Focusing on his horse, his own ride, he gave a small gasp. The world was so wide around them, and so white, and it was speeding by as fast as the wind. The horses' galloping hooves tossed up clouds of snow as they went, thudding and thundering, the air cold and clear and clean enough to drink. His horse stretched out underneath him. His hair was flying behind him. He was freezing, and he was shaken, and he was hurtling down the road at a breakneck speed…and it felt so, so, so, so good.
He was free. He was flying. If he just let go and let his horse run free, he could go anywhere he wanted, anywhere in the world.
He was living.
Cinder caught his breath. He was living. He didn't know how to explain it, but he felt alive. Not just like he existed. Truly, honestly alive.
An urge stirred inside him, to laugh, or to shout, he didn't know which. He let his horse run faster. Fields and trees sped past. The wind was beating in his face, bringing tears to his eyes. He inhaled it, took in the cold, the pain, everything. The very air itself seemed to taste like freedom.
The horse ran even faster. Beside him Gem kept up, leaning forward in his saddle and laughing. Faster and faster they went, like a whirlwind, stirring up a snowstorm as they passed in a whirlwind of hoofbeats and laughter.
Then, suddenly, something appeared in their path, and before either of them could react they were thrown and rolled down the slope along the side of the road.
Cinder caught his breath and looked up. Above them the sky was blue. Had the winter sky always been such a bright shade of blue? It felt silly to wonder, but it had never seemed that way to him.
"What did I say about you being idiots?" Olive's voice came from the road. "Are you all right?"
Cinder pushed himself up. Miraculously enough, he was unharmed. And so, apparently, was Gem. The layers of snow must have softened their fall.
"See?" said Gem, patting the snow off his clothes and extending a hand to help him up. "That was amazing fun, wasn't it?"
And despite himself, despite all the warnings of his mind, Cinder had to agree.
"I guess," he said, accepting Gem's hand and standing, "it wasn't all that bad."
He could still barely fight the urge to smile.
But deep down all his alarms and inner defenses were screaming all the louder.