I call the magic to my veins and it swallows me, rippling from my body and searching for the boy who is my best friend, my safety, my home. If my magic can reach him, I can go to him - the only person who ever bothered to know me. To my parents, I am a tool, an heir. To the city, I am the son of tyrants. To Chester, I am simply Roland, not prince or monster or heir. And to me, he is irreplaceable, the light when the rest of the world turns dark, he is Chester and he is my best friend and he is the boy I love.
I will not lose him.
My magic latches on, and for a second I am air.
And then I stand beside him, my hand on his shoulder, and relief washes through my bones and threatens to bring tears to my eyes.
"Chester," I whisper.
"Roland!" he hisses, and his eyes widen. "Shut up, he'll hear us."
I realise that he is trying to push giant coins the side of my head into a satchel, and confusion draws anger from my gut.
"What are you doing? I thought we agreed-"
Chester clamps his hand to my mouth. It is only now that I register the fear swelling within his eyes, carving its name across his features and slowly seeping into me. I look around. Everything is huge, overwhelming, a giant table looming above us.
Giant. The beanstalk leads you to a giant.
I tear myself away. "We have to go," I beg. "You've got your coins, okay, now let's go."
"Not yet." Greed has its strings wrapped around him, making him dance its petty waltz and forcing him to stay.
"Gold isn't worth your life," I hiss, and he's about to reply when a booming thud shakes the ground. We turn around, together, slowly, and see it.
The giant. Its feet strike the earth with untamed power, its body towering above us, its posture proud and fearless and completely predatory. Its eyes fix upon us, and I grip Chester's hand.
The giant stoops, and the magic swells through my body, and please, please, please let this hurry up, I have to get us out, and-
The burning eyes and looming hands disappear, and we are standing at the foot of the beanstalk, trying to gasp at air when all of it has already been stolen from our lungs. My legs give way and I collapse, the fear still slicing its scars across my memory.
"See?" Chester grins. "We're fine."
It is at this moment that the stalk trembles, and a feral roar tears through the sky, ripping into my ears and punching its terror even deeper into my heart.
"It's chasing us," I sob. "Chester, it'll kill everybody."
He looks at me, and I do not want to let him die.
"Then we kill it first," he says. "We destroy the stalk. Pyromancer."
When I do not move, he grips my shoulders. "Get a pyromancer from the mansion. Bring them back, and they can burn the stalk."
It takes a moment for the words to fight their way past the cloak of paralysing fear that claims me, but when they reach me I nod and am gone.
I appear in the middle of the pyromancers' quarters, and am greeted with the glares of people condemned by my parents to spend their lives as thoughtless tools.
"Please," I choke. "I need a pyromancer."
I am met with a silence so thick with hatred that I can feel it cutting into me, another fresh scar upon the ocean of memories I must live with.
And then one girl steps forward, her eyes filling with a stubborn kind of bravery. "You saved me, once, when a guard wanted to hurt me for my exhaustion. I will help you."
"Thank you," I whisper, and grip her wrist. The magic consumes us both, opening us to the heartbeat of the world around us, and then we are back beside Chester and the giant's roars are getting louder.
"Burn it," I beg.
The girl nods once before holding her palms before her, and waves of golden flames leap from her fingers like blazing tigers that consume all within their path. The serpent of smoke rises from the stalk, its jaws closing around me and filling my lungs with ash.
I look up, and the giant's shadow is closer, now.
Chester takes my hand, and the stalk starts to sway dangerously. The pyromancer has almost done it, she is almost there and we are going to make it, the giant will not reach the ground and we will be okay-
And then as the stalk topples, collapsing to the ground, I realise that we are both below it, and as everything falls upon us, I pull both Chester and the girl towards me. Darkness swallows us - too late?
"Roland," Chester chokes, and my eyes flicker open, letting light bleed its way into the world. My heart is smashing against my ribs and my lips are gasping down air. So close. So, so close.
But we made it, the magic worked and we made it, we made it, we made it.
I reach for Chester's bag, pull out one of the coins, and push it towards the girl. "Take it. Take it, and go. Thank you."
She stares at us with the wide eyes of a deer that has just been released by a wolf, and she scrambles away, clasping the coin to her chest as she runs.
I turn to Chester.
"Why did you do it?"
"Roland, you almost died and I could have killed everybody in the city. I'm sorry."
"Then tell me why."
"Because your family is trying to get rid of me, and I thought that maybe if I did this, they'd let me stay with you." His eyes flicker to mine, broken and guilty and wounded, and I grip his wrist.
"I wouldn't leave your side," I choke. "Never."
He swallows before lifting his hands to my head, one curling through my hair and pulling me closer. His lips meet mine, soft and warm and gentle, and for a moment I think I'm dreaming.
"I love you so much, Roland. I love the way you smile, just a little, when you're content, and I love the way your eyes dance when you're happy, and I love the way you speak in metaphor when you're emotional, and I love the way you speak and walk and laugh, and I didn't want to lose you."
I am shaking, and the familiar swarm of hummingbirds are exploding within my chest, their victorious wings whipping my emotions into a frenzy that I cannot understand. His words wrap around me, choking my throat with love and joy and stealing the words from my tongue. Eventually I manage to speak.
"I love you, Chester. But I don't want the boy who would tear down a city for me. I want the old Chester back, not the stranger, but the boy who would choose the city over me, because he knows what is right and he is the bravest, most beautiful person I have met. So if that boy is still in there, then I love him. Not the idiot who thought the gold was more important than his own life." There are tears mapping their way across my cheeks, and I cannot hold them in. "Don't try to make yourself a different person for the rest of the world. Make yourself a better person - for yourself, for me, I don't care, but do not change who you are for the rest of the world."
He looks at me like I'm something bright and beautiful, and he nods. "That Chester is still here, if you will forgive me."
"I don't want the past to shackle my future," I smile. "I will forgive you."
He pulls me into his arms, and I breathe him in.
"Run away with me," he whispers.
"I can't," I say.
"Your family would cast you aside for loving me. You are unhappy there."
"It is my fate to rule this city, eventually. It wouldn't be fair to leave them - and besides, I have to follow the path set out for me."
Chester cups my cheek, his thumb brushing away my tears. "It wouldn't be fair to give the city a ruler who doesn't want his own throne. Your little brother is fair. He could rule. And besides, if there isn't a path to the future you want, then you should pave a new one."
"I can't run away from everything."
"And if it's not running away?" he says. "If it's chasing something you want? You deserve something more, and if not for yourself, then for this city. They need a ruler they can trust. You were built for freedom, Roland. Not for the throne."
I bite my lip, because he's right, isn't he? Chester wants to free me from these chains, and I so desperately want to be freed.
"Then I'll tell my family tonight," I say.
"Don't do this just for me," he says, and his eyes narrow. "You have to be completely sure that you're doing this for you."
I smile. "I'm doing this for both of us."
Chester grins, and my heart pulses another beat of joy. "Then we'll do it. Together."
"Together," I say, and the word feels right as it leaves my tongue.
Together, because really, even when everything was difficult, isn't that all we've always been?
I stand at the edge of the market and watch him, the cloak drawn over his face to cast shadows upon his features, as he hands the beans to the boy. I'll give them to somebody who needs them, Chester promised me, and this boy certainly needs them: his clothes cling to his slender frame, too old and small for the adolescent. His eyes brim with the same exhaustion I saw every day in my parents' servants.
It's funny, how these little moments of chance can change everything.
The boy hands Chester the rope for his cow and nods his head, trudging away with a final, withering glance, before he turns his head back towards the ground beneath him, his shoulders hunched from carrying the weight of so many struggles.
Chester weaves back through the crowd of people, and his hand grips mine. I am safe, and I am home.
"You think he'll be okay?" Chester asks.
"Yeah," I smile. "Yeah, he will."
Chester nods. "He seemed like a good kid. I think he said his name was Jack."