The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 13

Ed and Marty were both gone when Jet stopped by the bus station. It was just as well, because Jet might have taken them up on their offer and left Darcy for good. It wasn’t worth it. So instead, Jet walked the streets of Darcy, marveling again at how many Family lived here. There were hardly any other kinds of people at all and once he got into the city proper, there were none. Just like in Low City, Family worked in the shops and drove the taxis and buses downtown. But at least in Low City there were others besides Family who lived and worked in the city, even if most of the non-family lived on the other side of the river.

The other side of the river is where Janna had lived, and coincidentally it was also where Jet had spent most of his childhood in the maze of subway tunnels that ran below it. That part of Low City was more modern than the main center, probably because it had been burned to the ground and rebuilt in the last ten years. Jet’s stomach clenched as he thought of Janna. My fault, he thought. If I hadn’t run away . . .

Something to eat would settle his stomach. Jet had already concluded that leaving the Family now wouldn’t solve anything. Staying, on the other hand, might give him the knowledge he needed to protect himself and the people he cared about from any Family anywhere. So he’d stay. And learn. And use what he learned to his advantage. That was his plan, anyway. First, some food.

Jet walked into the restaurant like any other paying customer. He ignored the odd looks he received because there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He knew he didn’t look exactly like the typical Darcy Family member. He was dressed in Ben’s old cast-offs, although they were already much better than his usual clothes. And his new haircut, courtesy of Doll, was quite a bit shorter than the current style. Jet took a seat by the wall and studied the menu that was on the table. “I’ll have a hamburger,” he told the girl, Family of course, who came to take his order.

He choked a moment later when he saw who was sitting at a table on the other side of the restaurant. What was Merrell doing here? Jet considered fading into shadow before he was noticed, but it was already too late. Merrell had spotted him and was making his way across the room now. At least he was alone; none of his enforcers were with him.

“How did you get here? No, never mind, I don’t want to know.” Merrell slid into the seat opposite Jet. “Can’t you go one night without breaking the rules?”

Jet stuffed the last bite of hamburger into his mouth before he shrugged. What could he say that would appease Merrell? Certainly not the truth. He swallowed. “You never said I couldn’t leave. I’ll be back in time for our meeting.”

Merrell sighed in exasperation. “I’m saying it now. You can’t leave Arden unless I say so. This is Darcy, the Capitol. It’s highly guarded and not all of my Enforcers know who you are yet. You could have been hurt—or worse.”

Jet snorted. “I can take care of myself.”

At that, Merrell’s eyebrows rose. “And how were you planning on taking care of yourself tonight? Do you have money to pay for this dinner?”

Jet hadn’t planned on paying for it at all. He never did. He simply disappeared before the bill came. But he couldn’t tell Merrell that. “What are you doing here?”

They had been keeping their voices low, but were drawing curious looks from the other patrons anyway. Jet might not be known, but Merrell was. “Come with me.” Merrell grabbed Jet’s arm—Jet wished people would stop doing that—and threw some money down on the table. Jet allowed himself to be led out of the restaurant even though his whole body was screaming fight or flight. The patrons probably thought Merrell was arresting him. Maybe Merrell was.

Outside, Jet noticed the enforcers Merrell had stationed strategically nearby. He hadn’t been traveling alone after all. Just how dangerous was Darcy?

“Get in.” One of Merrell’s men pulled up in the big black car. Jet got inside and waited for Merrell to join him. There was a darkened window separating the driver from the back seat, for which Jet was grateful. He didn’t really want anyone else to hear him getting yelled at.

Before Merrell could start, Jet beat him to it. “You stick me in that little room with nothing to do and I’m supposed to stay there? So what if I went to Darcy? Why are you here anyway?” He looked away and mumbled, “Besides, I needed some new clothes.”

Merrell didn’t reply right away. He took out his phone and punched something into the screen. Then he turned to Jet. “You’ll have clothes by the morning. I told you before. If you need something, you ask me. And I was escorting Queen Sephira home. That’s what I’m doing in Darcy.” His lips flickered in what might have been a smile, before he frowned. “And just where were you planning to buy clothes at this hour?”

Jet reddened, caught in his own lie. “So now what?” he asked sullenly, leaning his head back against the seat.

“Now I give up my own plans for the evening and take you back,” Merrell replied, crossing his arms to indicate the conversation was closed.

They stopped in front of Arden’s main entrance. “You’re not coming?” Jet asked with some relief when Merrell remained inside the car. He had been worried Merrell would want to accompany him back to his room.

“Jet.” Merrell stopped him just as Jet was about to slam the car door. “No using your abilities. It’s against the rules. There’s only so much leeway I can give you before there will be consequences.”

The car drove away as Jet tried to figure out what Merrell was telling him. Did Merrell know he had used his abilities to go to Darcy? Did he have any idea of just how Jet had done it? Did he know how Jet intended to get back into his room?

Jet had no choice. He checked to make sure the hallway was empty before he slid under the door as a gust of wind. His key-card was right where he had left it on the desk. Thankfully, Lorra was gone. He wasn’t looking forward to hearing her rendition of what happened in the morning at breakfast. But really, it had been her own fault. What did she expect?

Jet hesitated as his gaze fell on the bed. It was piled high with clothes. He walked over and held up a pair of gray trousers similar to the ones Macek and Merrell wore at the school. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he muttered to himself, tossing them back onto the pile.

He swept the entire pile onto the floor so he could lie on the bed, thinking dire thoughts about Merrell and how he’d interfered one time too many in Jet’s life. Then he grew still. The key card. It had been on the desk. Did whoever left the clothes see it and realize Jet couldn’t possibly have gotten in without it?

Jet shook his head. It was probably just some maid who wouldn’t have noticed.

The next morning, Jet pulled on his old clothes and went to Macek’s class, skipping breakfast. Charlie stared at him accusingly although Daniel greeted him pleasantly enough. They went right into their fire-holding drills and there was no time for talking. When Macek wasn’t looking, Jet made fire dance on his fingertips for Mattie, who giggled and tried to do it too. A small flame jumped from finger to finger for just a moment before fizzling out.

“You did it!” Jet whispered to Mattie.

Mattie grinned.

Daniel walked with Jet to lunch when their session was over. For some reason, Jet gravitated towards Lorra’s table, and Daniel followed him. Jet expected Lorra to still be angry, but she acted like nothing was wrong, so he did the same. Conversation slowed down briefly when Jet sat down, but it started up again when he did nothing but eat his lunch.

“Are you really the King’s son?” Tommy, the boy whose food he had stolen that first day, asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” It was the first time Jet had conceded out loud that it might be true.

“Of course he is!” Daniel said, draping an arm over Jet’s shoulder. “We all saw what he did yesterday afternoon. I knew it all along.”

Jet glanced sideways at Daniel, who just the other day had speculated that Jet might possibly be Merrell’s offspring. Daniel had a habit of twisting the truth to suit his own agenda. He didn’t mean anything by it, except to make himself look better in the eyes of his younger cousins. “I didn’t,” he said. “I’m still not sure I believe it myself.”

“But King Roy took you into his rooms after. He must have said something to you then.”

Jet shrugged. “Not really.”

The warning tone signaling the beginning of the second session rang. Jet cleared his plate, brushing against Lorra as she passed by him. She smiled. Not upset then. Jet wasn’t sure whether he was happy about that or not.

“Only three more days of this,” Daniel sighed, clanging his plate down. “I’m so sick of playing little kids games. ‘Do this. Don’t do that,’ he mimicked. “I could spin circles around Macek if I wanted to.” He looked around to make sure Macek was nowhere nearby.

“Oh, uh, I told Merrell I want to keep taking Macek’s class,” Jet admitted. He stopped where the hallways branched. “He said I could in the mornings but in the afternoons I have to go to his office instead, so I, uh, guess I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

“Merrell’s going to teach you? Himself?”

“I guess.”

The second bell rang. “Then you’d better get going,” Daniel said. “You shouldn’t keep the Enforcer waiting.” He turned and stamped down the other hallway towards the beginner’s practice room.

Merrell was sitting in his office when Jet arrived. He showed none of the wry humor he’d displayed the night before. “Jet,” he said ominously, “Why aren’t you wearing the clothes I sent you?”

“Because I’m not a teacher!” Jet answered. “And I’m not one of your enforcers either. None of the other kids have to wear those clothes.”

“Why must everything be so difficult with you? Jet, you’ll wear them because I said so,” Merrell growled. “The grays do not signify teachers or Enforcers. They represent a level of elemental talent. None of the other kids wear the grays because they have not reached that level yet.”

“Not even Daniel?” Jet asked, remembering Daniel’s cutting remark about spinning circles around Macek.

“Daniel is not ready to wear the grays yet,” Merrell replied. “Don’t fight me on every little thing, Jet. We’ll never get anywhere. Tomorrow you’ll wear the grays. Now,” he gestured for Jet to take a seat. “Tell me how you got into your room without your key-card.”

Jet blanched. “What?”

“How did you do it, Jet?”

Jet had to make a decision quickly. Did he trust Merrell? Not completely. But he needed to know if he was the only one of the Family who could become his elements, or if others, possibly Merrell or the King himself, could do it too. They had come after him in the first place because he broke into their precious library seeking explanations for what he was. Jet still didn’t know the answer to that.

“Like this,” he said. He let go of his body, becoming a soft wind and swirling gently around Merrell’s office, knocking over books and papers so Merrell would know he was still there. Merrell sat frozen in his chair with only a slight widening of his eyes to indicate that he was startled. Jet seeped through the tiny crack in Merrell’s window and let his body form outside it. He tapped the window lightly to draw Merrell’s attention to it.

Merrell leaped to his feet and put his hands against the glass as he stared at Jet on the other side of the window. Finally his face showed an expression. It was, maybe not quite fear, but definitely shock. Well, that answered that question.

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