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The Reluctant Prince

By Eve Mak All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Prologue

Ice lined the puddles in the heavy dark. Underneath a dingy white cloth a little boy curled in on himself, too cold even to shiver. The dark pounded down on him in the tunnel, wrapping around him like a second blanket. It was the only thing keeping him alive.

It had been that way for a week now, ever since the weather got colder. The boy squeezed his eyes shut to block the memories, but they came anyway. Cold, always cold and hungry. Nobody came down here in the tunnels that ran beneath the tracks. Nobody but the rats—and the boy because he was small enough to fit through the tiny grates that separated these darker tunnels from the ones above. Those other tunnels crawled with people like himself, the ones with nowhere else to go. Sometimes in the daytime he wandered among them, always wary, always ready to run if someone looked at him the wrong way. He had to run a lot.

Before, when he lived in the light, he had been happy. Janna brought him shopping and let him have sweets sometimes. She hugged him and kissed him and told him he was the handsomest boy on earth. Then she left him. No, that wasn’t quite right. He had left her. He remembered the day clearly. It was warmer then, still on the edge of summer, and he’d been playing in his bed when he was supposed to be taking a nap. He heard his mother come into the small room off his bedroom where Janna hummed quietly to herself while she waited for him to wake up. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

Their murmured voices quickly rose to heated whispers. “Your services will no longer be required,” he heard his mother say coldly before she swept out of the room, letting the door bang shut behind her.

In his bed, the little boy pulled the covers over his head and hardly dared to breathe. Janna came in a few minutes later and gently peeled back the covers to stroke his dark hair away from his forehead. “You don’t have to pretend you’re not awake,” she said softly. “Come, nap time is over. I’ll take you to the park and you can have an ice-cream. You’d like that, Roddy, wouldn’t you?” She smiled, but the little boy could see tear-tracks on her cheeks. He reached out to touch them. It was the last time anyone called him Roddy.

At the park, Janna sat him down next to the ice-cream stand and told him, “I have to go home and take care of my own children. Tomorrow you’ll have a new teacher to take care of you and bring you to the park.”

“But why?”

Janna smiled sadly. Her light brown hair, so different from his own, fluttered in the breeze. He remembered ice-cream dripping all over his hand and onto his pants. “My children need me too. It’s far past time for me to go home.”

That wasn’t it. Roddy had heard his mother. She was making Janna go away! It wasn’t fair! He knew Janna was not his mother; he knew she wasn’t Family at all, but to Roddy, she was the world. “I want to go with you!” he blurted. His mother wouldn’t miss him; she wouldn’t even know he was gone. She never came to see him anyway. She only talked to Janna about him—never to him. He wasn’t sure he had ever even seen his father, although everyone assured him that he had one.

Janny gave a surprised laugh. “Come with me? No, love. You couldn’t come to where I need to go. You belong here with your own Family.”

“I do not!” Roddy stood up and flung the half-eaten ice-cream cone away from him. “I belong with you!”

All around them the trees swayed and beyond the park the tall tops of buildings shimmered whitely in the bright afternoon sun. People nearby stopped and stared at the little boy’s outburst.

“Shh!” Janny gathered Roddy in her arms and hugged him. “No more of that,” she whispered. “It will be fine—you’re getting too old for me to take care of you anymore. Your father has wonderful things planned for you. You’ll see. Big boy things.”

Roddy sniffed but did not reply. Janna wiped his face with her sleeve. “But you and I have this lovely afternoon to ourselves,” she said conspiratorially. “Let’s find something interesting to do!”

The little boy let himself be led away. They went to the market and he got a slice of melon. He remembered that. Then Janna took him on the subway to the little island in the middle of the river. It was their special place. From here, you could see both sides of the city—his, and hers. Tomorrow she would go back to her own side and he would never see her again.

Roddy determined at that moment not to go back home. If Janna didn’t want him either, he would just make his own way in the world. Hadn’t Janna just said he was a big boy now? When they boarded the subway to return to the city, Roddy let his hand slide from Janna’s. When the train stopped at a busy station, he slipped away from her and lost himself in the crowds. It was surprisingly easy. He spent the rest of the afternoon and part of the evening hopping from train to train between both sides of the city. It was fun. Nobody paid any attention to him and he was careful to attach himself to groups of people so that everybody who saw him assumed he belonged to someone else. It was perfect until he began to get hungry.

At about the same time, he realized that he was truly lost. He stopped in the middle of the subway station, creating a small eddy in the pool of humanity that flowed around him.

“What’s the matter, little boy? Are you lost?” A fat woman with a kind face stopped, widening the pool around them both. “Where is your mother?”

Roddy’s eyes filled with tears as he thought of Janna, far away and never coming back. The woman’s hands reached out for him and, startled, Roddy jumped back, losing himself in the crowd.

“Little boy! Little boy!” The cry echoed around the station but was quickly swallowed up by all the other noises. Roddy darted up the stairs and under a turnstile into the night air, surprised to find it already dark. Which side of the river was he on? Janna’s side?

The people who bustled by looked a little like Janna with light hair and careworn faces. But those kinds of people lived on his side of the river also. Not everybody on Roddy’s side had the distinctive dark hair and pale skin of his Family. He spotted a dark-haired couple on the street corner ahead of him and crossed the street amid a throng of like-minded people intent on getting to wherever they were going. Not everyone with dark hair was Family, either, but Roddy didn’t know who was and who wasn’t, so he stayed as far away as he could.

Shuddering, the child who once was Roddy pulled his blanket tighter around him and sat up against the cold stone wall of his secret tunnel. It was too cold to sleep anyway. That first night had been the beginning of what turned out to be a harrowing ordeal for the little boy. If he had known then how hard it would be, he would have let the fat woman catch him and bring him home. Now it was too late. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t go home again.

Hunger pushed him to his feet and he felt his way along the rough tunnel walls to where the wind blew through one of the grates that connected his tunnel with the tunnels above. The sound the wind made was forlorn, reproachful. The boy who was once known as Roddy raised his hands to feel the icy draft as the wind reached its fingers through the grate in greeting. It was a very small grate. Roddy grasped hold of the wind and pulled himself through to the other side to lay breathless on the dirty floor. This part of the tunnel held light, and food if he could get it, and people. He had to watch out for the people.

It was still too early for the trains to be running. Early on he had realized that, in order to get back into the subway from the world above, he needed money. More importantly, because of his age, he needed grown-ups to accompany him. Early on, he learned to sneak through under the turnstile on the heels of rushing adults who rarely noticed their small addition. It was the other times he needed to be wary. When the workers all went home and left the subway tunnels to people like him, people with nowhere else to call home. Those were the dangerous ones. But a few were his friends.

“Hey, Jet!” The bundle of rags in the corner by the stairs greeted him as he snuck by.

Jet was the name they called him, because of his jet black hair. He liked it. He liked it better than Roddy, at any rate. Jet smiled in the dimness as he passed by the old man. He’d be sure to bring him back some food later. He continued on up the stairs, skirting around another bundle made up of boxes. Underneath those boxes was another human being, if you could call him that. Jet didn’t. The thing under the boxes was mean. And crazy. Jet kept to the shadows as much as possible as the stairway was lit with a garish yellow safety light. Whatever shadow there was seemed to gravitate towards Jet, or perhaps it was the other way around. Jet gravitated towards the shadows. In any case, the mean thing under the pile of boxes didn’t stir or acknowledge him at all. That was good.

Upstairs on the main concourse life was beginning to stir. The ones who ran the small shops that sold sandwiches and coffee had already lifted the iron gates halfway up in preparation for the new day. Jet looked for one that had not yet opened and slipped through the locked gates and into the back of the shop where the delivery man had left boxes of bread, cheese and meat for sandwiches on the iron steps which led up to the street. Jet had to pass through yet another set of locked gates, but he was small and it was easy. Stuffing his pockets full of bread and meat, he slipped back out the way he had come, avoiding the steps that led outside. He ate most of his breakfast while he strolled through the slowly awakening subway concourse, avoiding people this early who might wonder why a small boy wandered alone at this hour.

He plopped a hastily made sandwich into old Bob’s hands as he brisked by, one eye on the pile of boxes which had begun to move, no doubt smelling the food. “Have a good day, Bob,” he whispered. “See you later!”

If it weren’t for the cold, he could forget how miserable this life was. If it weren’t for the bad people, like Box Man, he might even like it here. As it was, sometimes Jet just wished he could go home.

“Gotcha!”

Strong arms clamped around Jet’s waist, lifting him off his feet. He smelled the putrid unwashed odor of Box Man before he even saw who had him. Jet wriggled unsuccessfully, but he was caught fast. Dirty hands scrabbled for the food that was still in his pockets, rougher than necessary, but even when Box Man had taken all his food, he still didn’t let go of Jet.

“What have we here?” Box Man wheezed. His breath made Jet flinch back. Box Man had caught him before. Jet glanced wildly around but, except for old Bob who couldn’t move, nobody else was nearby. A gust of wind blew down the stairs, swirling empty food wrappers and newspapers around their legs.

The hands that held him shifted subtly and Jet struggled wildly against them. “Let—go!” he shouted as the wind picked up in earnest and buffeted Box Man, making him stagger a few steps backwards. His cardboard bed flew across the platform to land on the subway tracks. Jet used the distraction to wiggle out of Box Man’s grasp. The man grabbed his shirt and missed. Jet ran as fast as he could towards the tunnel entrance and his bolt hole. He hoped a train wouldn’t come before he found it. In the distance he could hear Box Man cursing him but Jet knew he wouldn’t follow him.

Shaking, Jet made it through the small grate into the utter darkness of the lower tunnels. This was where he belonged now, with the cold and the rats and the dark. Nobody could get to him here. Outside his hidey hole, the wind mourned softly.

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