The forest's shadows dance with the pulses of lightning, the sky is throbbing with thunder, and the melancholy symphony of rain against leaves never quite sings its way past my skin.
"We're lost," Chester whines again.
"We're not," I say.
"Then what are we?"
"Pretending to be lost." Another spear of lightning bleeds its silver glow into the rest of the world, and for a moment I can see every echo of fear etched into Chester's expression.
"You want to go back?"
"No. This is the kind of fear that overwhelms you at first, and makes you braver in the future."
His confidence is a masquerade, and both of us know it. He longs for the hearty warmth of a tavern and the familiar buzz of voices, but out here he has only the song of the storm and the flimsy sanctuary of my promises.
Of course, neither of us say this; our friendship is built upon stubborn loyalty and Chester wouldn't leave my side - not now, even if the darkness and the storm and the murmuring forest terrify him so much that he insists upon clinging to my hand. Not that I mind, of course, because his iron grip reminds me that even if everybody else in the world turned their backs, Chester would not let go.
"Are you shaking?" I ask eventually, because every so often his hand shudders, just a little, like the cold has swept into his bones and is trying to shake away his strength.
"It doesn't matter, Roland," he says. "We can stay out here all night, you know? I'm not that cold."
The selfless confidence in his words unleashes something in my chest - a flock of hummingbirds that stir up a squall of confusion and excitement and aching and call to me of hope. They dwell inside me - have done for years - and no matter how much I struggle to cage them, he always sets them free. Some would call it love; most would call it sin; I know it as an impossible whisper of poisonous hope.
"Do some magic," Chester says eventually. "Your magic's warm."
I nod - not that he can see me through the rain's dark veil - and call the magic to flow through me. Instantly, the forest comes alive, its heartbeat pounding through my chest to a rhythm that matches my own. I feel every breath it takes, every pulse of natural magic that flows between the trees, every movement of every creature within the forest.
I can see everything, I can do anything, and I can laugh in the tongue of the world around me.
My magic is a blessing, and as its power swells through me and into Chester, there is warmth and joy and bliss. I find a sheltered spot bordering upon my estate grounds, and for a moment the two of us are air.
And then we stand at the edge of the forest, looking across to my estate. Out here, there are no chains, but if I go back I will be trapped, shackled by my every newly-acquired responsibility. For my blood, of course, is blessed with ancient magic, and I am destined to rule. I miss the oblivion of infancy.
"We can stay out here for longer," Chester offers. "Your magic warmed me up, so it's not like I'll catch a cold or anything."
I glance at him. The beads of rain tumble carelessly down his cheeks and drip from his chin. Some have been caught by his lashes and linger there: decorations for a face that is already beautiful.
"We'll go inside," I say. "But... thank you."
We head across the lawns, and the light from the mansion's windows scorch through the rain. Who I am, what I must become - it is a hound, snapping at my heels and chasing me away from freedom, and I will never escape it.
One of the windows disappears through the ocean of rain, and I can't help but wonder if another of my parent's pyromancers has succumbed to exhaustion. There are two paths set for thoe born with magic in their blood. Mine is a road of power and duty; my gift is unique and its potential unbound - a beautiful burden passed through my family to keep us in control. The other road? That's for those with lesser powers, like the animaltongues who train nobles' pets, lie the pyromancers who heat and light the halls of the rich while the rest of the world shudders beneath the icy wing of winter. Magic carves your future, and it leaves no room for exceptions.
The mansion sentries finally spot us, their warnings already jumping from their lips. Another blade of lightning slashes through the dark and rain, and the guards stop.
"Prince Roland?" one breathes, and I can hardly hear him above the chorus of raindrops.
"And Chester," I say, and we are met with cascading apologies before they usher us inside. The entrance hall dwarfs us all; its alabaster walls are lined with intricate tapestries, all of which depict my ancestors' glorious victories.
I have only stepped into the room, and already the expectations are towering above me. My grandfathers won battles, but me? I dragged my friend into a storm to flee my future. A pointless act; if there is one thing my magic will never defeat, it is time. Time can make monsters of us all, can turn us to dust, can wipe us from the archives of memory. It spares nobody.
One of the guards braves the chaotic swarm gathered in the guest hall - likely in attempts to find my mother - and Chester nudges my arm, nodding to a girl in the corner. She wears the crimson tunic of pyromancers, and a guard grips her arm.
"What has she done?" I ask, and the guard turns to me.
"She let her fire die," he says, gesturing to an unlit brazier.
"Let her go," I tell him. When his lips part in the wavering suggestin of protest, I draw a coin from my pocket and toss it to him. "Let her go," I say again.
He nods and steps away. The pyromancer's eyes flicker to me, brimming with gratitude, and her lips quiver as though trying fearfully to hold in words. She takes a step towards me, but I am already turning towards the sound of my mother's voice, every word gashing the air as she strides from the guest hall.
"Roland!" The moment she sees me, the worry gushes from her lips and threatens to suffocate me. "The hunting party came back and told us you were separated! Honestly, Roland, trust you to be the only person missing from your own coming of age celebration!"
"Not the only person," I correct her.
"Oh, Roland, you know your uncle was busy - he was hunting a particularly powerful witch this time. But he's here right now - I'll go and fetch him-"
"Not Uncle Fletcher," I say. "Chester. Chester was missing." I give her my particularly irritated glare - the kind I reserve for moments in which the ability to care has drained from my chest.
"Well, of course - but I was talking about the important people, Roland, the wealthier nobles."
I don't have to look at Chester to see him flinch.
"Goodnight, mother," I say. "We're cold and tired. Don't bother to send anybody up."
I turn away from her and head to the stairs, trying to quell the fury that threatens to claim control of my tongue.
"Roland, wait!" she says, her words hanging between anger and guilt. "Roland!"
I keep walking.