Merrell left Jet with the King while he went to ‘attend to his duties.’ Right. King Roy was not what Jet had expected. He was thin to the point of emaciation—and he looked old. Maybe that’s what being King did to you. Jet had a hard time believing this man was the most powerful elemental user in Attania.
“I’m glad you came, er, Jet,” King Roy said. “When Tom told me he’d found you after all this time, I could hardly believe it.”
Jet opened his mouth to say ‘I’m not—‘ but the King smiled at him and nodded, as if anticipating what Jet was going to say. “Oh, I know I’m supposed to wait for the official word, but I know right here,” he pointed to his chest, “that you’re my Roderick. Come here, son.”
Jet approached the old man cautiously and was enveloped in a fierce hug. He remained frozen, unsure how to react. King Roy eventually let him go. “I’m sure you don’t remember me. In those days I hardly got the chance to visit Low City what with all the troubles in the East. But I remember you. You were a chubby baby, always happy. You walked early, talked early too. I should have anticipated you would develop your elemental abilities earlier too and had you brought to me at Darcy sooner. Maybe then we could have avoided all the years of heartache.”
What was he talking about? Jet’s childhood had been no picnic, but—heartache? How could you miss something you never had?
Merrell came in just when Jet was contemplating disappearing in a cloud of smoke, regardless of what the consequences might be. “Jet, you can leave now. Do you remember the way back to your room?”
Jet nodded. “Should I—uh--?” He allowed a small amount of shadow to gather in the palm of his hand.
“That won’t be necessary,” Merrell answered.
“Jet.” King Roy put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Some cousins were still in the dining room so Jet stopped to see if he could still get something to eat. It was habit, mostly. Eat when you can.
Daniel must have had the same idea because he was there also, holding court at one of the round tables. Everybody stopped talking and looked up as Jet approached.
“Speak of the devil,” Lorrah said with a sniff before taking her plate to the washing station in the adjoining room. A few of the others got up and left at the same time, leaving Jet alone with Daniel and his younger brother Charles.
“You were talking about me?”
“Not about that.” Daniel motioned for Charles to move over so Jet could sit. “We were just, you know, speculating.”
“About why you’re in Macek’s beginner class when obviously you’re too old. I told Charles here I’ll come to class tomorrow so I can check it out.”
So that’s how he got around telling them he was being punished. Jet almost laughed. He took a few bites out of his dinner instead and wondered if he should mention the King’s visit. But Merrell had sent Daniel away, so perhaps he hadn’t wanted him to know. Still, King Roy was Daniel’s father. Charles’ too. Neither Merrell nor the King had said he couldn’t say anything.
“Uh, does the King come to Arden often?” Jet settled for asking.
Daniel choked on his drink, then paled. “Father is here?”
Charles leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. “Mother too?” he asked.
Jet shrugged. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. “I didn’t see anyone else,” he replied, noting how Charles immediately deflated, slumping back in his chair and crossing his arms.
“Did he speak to you? What did he say? Did he mention me?” Daniel shot questions at Jet with an intensity that surprised him. Did Daniel think the King was here to punish him for his little trick? Jet had gotten the impression that Merrell was the disciplinarian, not the King.
“Just hello,” Jet said. “We only talked for a few minutes after--.” He stopped, unwilling to tell Daniel about the blood test. “He said he’d see us tomorrow.” Close enough.
Jet’s answer seemed to pacify Daniel somewhat. “Come on, kid,” Daniel said to his younger brother. “We’d better get cleaned up if Father is coming to visit us in the morning.”
“Do you think Mother will be there too?” Charles asked hopefully.
They drifted away until Jet could no longer hear them. When he looked up again from his plate he realized he was the only one left in the dining room. He cleared his plate and headed back to the wing where his own room was. Nobody bothered him.
Jet changed into the pajamas he’d brought and stared up at the ceiling, not particularly tired after spending the whole day doing nothing. He amused himself by building shadow armies and then conquering them with swords of light.
The next morning he put on the third and final outfit that Ben had packed for him. Not that he cared, but he didn’t want any of the cousins to comment on his outfit if he wore the same one again. He sniffed, but couldn’t see any reason to have another bath, so after a quick splash of water on his face to help him wake up, he pocketed his key-card and prepared to leave.
Daniel, with Charles in tow, was just coming up the hallway. “You were right!” he called. “The King and Queen are both here.”
Daniel seemed more relaxed this morning. Was it because the Queen was here also? Charles was ecstatic.
The dining room buzzed with excitement. King Roy and his Queen sat at Merrell’s table. For once, the other gray-suited Enforcers were not present. Neither was Macek.
Daniel and Charles headed over to join their parents. Jet headed to the room where they kept the food. He looked for a seat at Lorra’s table. There was Macek, kicked out of the grown-ups table, apparently.
“Jet! Over here!”
King Roy stood up and waved Jet over. He patted the seat right next to him. Jet sat down. A hush fell over the dining room as everyone turned to stare at him. Even Daniel, who sat across the table from him, stared.
The King leaned back so Jet could see the slender woman who sat on his other side. “Meet Queen Sephira. You may call her Mother.”
She was not Jet’s mother. Jet knew that for certain. She wasn’t even the one from the news stories when young Prince Roderick was lost. This woman was younger, hardly older than Jet himself. She might be Charles’ mother, but certainly not Daniel’s, and not Jet’s either.
Nevertheless, Jet set his jaw in a stiff smile. “Mother,” he said, inclining his head.
The room went wild, loud conversations sprouting out simultaneously at each of the round tables. At the King’s table, there was only silence. Daniel looked stunned.
After breakfast, the King moved from table to table, greeting the cousins and making small talk until a bell sounded, signaling the beginning of classes.
Macek appeared in front of Jet and Daniel. “You’re late,” he said, although everyone was late today. He gave Jet a penetrating look.
“What?” Jet asked.
“Nothing. Get to class. I’ll be there in a moment.” Macek strode off to where his father stood with the King and Queen, speaking quietly to them while throwing occasional glances over his shoulder at Jet and Daniel.
“So—Mother, huh?” Daniel commented with some amusement. “I don’t even call her that.”
There was something underneath Daniel’s flippant remark, but Jet had no time to ask him about it.
“He’s a nobody!” a high, outraged voice proclaimed from somewhere within the beginner’s training room. Jet was pretty sure they were talking about him. “He can’t have my mother!”
It was Charles. And Jet thought Charles had liked him. Not enough to share his mother—the mother of all the King’s offspring, regardless of who their actual mothers might be, if that tidbit of information Ben had given him was true. That suited Jet just fine. He entered the training room.
“It’s all right. I just said that to be polite,” he told the crowd of youngsters, who fell quiet when he approached. “I have my own mother.”
“Janna, right?” Daniel remembered, coming up behind him. “Hi, kids. I came to see how you’re all progressing.”
Macek came in and closed the door behind him. “Get in line Daniel. You too, Jet.” The younger boys tittered.
They spent the morning practicing calling flame—one flame—into their hands. Macek glared whenever Daniel or Jet tried to help one of the boys. Their flames were unsteady, and more than once a boy would yelp in sudden pain when his flame got away from him. But Macek made them keep practicing until they could control it. “Hold it steady,” Macek said to Mattie. “You must control the fire or it will consume you.” Jet rolled his eyes.
The boys were too distracted to pay much attention to Macek’s lesson. They kept stealing glances at Jet and at the door until finally Macek dismissed them all. “Lunch with the King and Queen on the back lawn.”
Jet followed the rest of them outside where a picnic was set up on the wide lawn which sloped down to a dense forest. From his rooftop view the other night he knew Darcy was just on the other side of that forest. Today the sun shone brightly. Jet shaded his eyes, trying to see if he could spot some of the houses he knew were hidden by the trees below.
Several children ran in circles playing some sort of chase game. Macek was one of the oldest, next to Daniel, Lorra and, he supposed, himself. The others varied in age, with Mattie being the youngest Jet could see. He tried to count, to see if there really were seventeen of them, but they moved around too quickly. Which ones belonged to the King?
King Roy and Queen Sephira sat in lawn chairs on a brick patio as the children frolicked around them. Charles ran over to sit at Sephira’s feet, and as if that were a signal, several of the other children ran over to the King and Queen as well.
“Are those all King Roy’s children?” Jet asked Daniel, who had hung back with him near the food tables.
"Let’s see. . . . Charles is. And Ella and Warren and Peter.” He pointed them out as he named them. Jet vaguely recalled their faces from the dining room. “Only Charles is Sephira’s. The rest of us have different mothers.” He grinned crookedly. “Kind of like you.”
Jet ignored the last comment. “Who do all these other kids belong to?”
“Cousins, Jet. All cousins. All here to learn how to use their elemental gifts to the best of their abilities, like you.”
Daniel left Jet at the food table and wandered about the lawn, where some of the children had spread out blankets to have their picnic lunch on. Jet shoved a hastily-made sandwich into his pocket, took a bite out of another one, and did some wandering of his own. He heard his name mentioned more than once. No one invited him to sit on their blanket, and he really didn’t want to get too near to King Roy for fear that the King would invite him to sit, so Jet kept to the edges of the group, unconsciously drawing what little shadow there was to him as he walked idly back and forth.
“Do you think Jet is really Roderick?”
Jet stopped stock-still. Several children sat on a blanket with Daniel. The boy who had asked the question was someone Jet didn’t recognize. He was younger than Daniel but older than the beginners in Jet’s class. Jet waited to hear what Daniel had to say.
“He could be,” Daniel replied. None of them had noticed Jet standing nearby yet.
“But I thought Prince Roderick was burned up in a fire.” That was Mattie.
“The fire came after,” Daniel explained. “When the Enforcers searched all over Low City and found no trace of the Prince, they burned the city and punished the ones responsible.”
“Didn’t Prince Roderick get burned too?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Daniel caught sight of Jet watching.
Jet asked, “Who was responsible?” A terrible feeling of dread settled in Jet’s stomach. He remembered the fire, remembered the smell of the smoke, the screams he heard. He had been afraid to come out of the subway for a long time after that. “Who was punished?”
Daniel looked up at Jet. “Why, the Nanny who kidnapped the Prince. She and her whole family and the area they lived in were destroyed by the Enforcers as a lesson to the rest of the non-family of Low City.”
Jet backed away. The heavy feeling in his stomach had crawled up to his throat. He swallowed, and blindly walked away. Janna. His Nanny had been called Janna. He couldn’t catch his breath. Around him, the wind picked up, knocking over drinks and scattering blankets and food all over the lawn. The sky darkened ominously and black clouds moved in. The rain started soon after that, as everyone scrambled to pick up the blowing debris of the picnic lunch and run inside. Still Jet stood in the rain, letting it pelt down on him. Janna. Her entire family. Her children whom she wanted to be with instead of Jet. Instead of Roddy. Oh, it couldn’t be him, could it? Roddy—Roderick? In some deep part of his mind, he had always known it was true. But he didn’t want it to be true! He wanted nothing to do with people who could do—that!
Lightning crashed not far from where Jet stood. In quick succession, lightning struck all around the lawn and still Jet did not move until someone grabbed him and shook him. He almost let his body go to smoke—almost—before he saw who had him.
“Jet! Stop it! That’s enough!” King Roy shook Jet by his shoulders. Both of them were soaked through from the pounding rain. “Jet!”
Jet shivered, and his eyes slowly focused on the old King’s face. He blinked the rain out of his eyes and glanced around the back lawn. The sky was as dark as night. Jet took a shaky breath and the lightning stopped. He took another, steadier breath. Gradually, the sky brightened as the clouds moved away and the wind died down. Jet’s shoulders slumped, and King Roy caught him before he fell.
“Come on, son. Let’s go inside.”
Jet let King Roy lead him back into Arden, into his own suite of rooms, still too numb to think clearly. Janna, his beloved Janna—gone. All these years he’d thought she was happy with her own children. He cried quietly, as the heartache he hadn’t known about until today finally found him.