The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 14

“Is wind the only form you can take? No? What else? Shadow?”

Jet nodded.




“Pretty much all of them,” Jet admitted.

Merrell sat down with a thump. “Just how many elements do you control, Jet?”

“I don’t know—how many are there?”

Merrell closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Unbelievable. Jet, you can’t let anyone else know you can do—that. No one. Not even Daniel. Is that clear?”

“Yeah, it’s clear,” Jet said, then added under his breath. “I wish I hadn’t shown you either.”

Merrell had gotten over his initial shock rather quickly. He’d had Jet transform again to flow through the tiny crack at the bottom of his window, then immediately closed the blinds. He spent the rest of the afternoon quizzing Jet on what he could and couldn’t do. Jet regretted revealing his secret to Merrell as soon as he did it, but it was too late now.

“I thought that maybe you or the King knew how to do it too.” Jet glared in frustration. “I have no idea what any of you people can do. How am I supposed to know if nobody tells me anything?”

“That is going to change right now,” Merrell said. “It’s more important than ever that you learn why Family must remain in control of Attania. If the general public had any idea of what you are capable of--,” he broke off and gave Jet a searching stare. “No one else knows about this, right? None of your past acquaintances from Low City?”

Ben knew. Of course Ben knew. He was the closest thing Jet had to family. And Doll. She knew too, because Jet had shown her. “No,” he told Merrell. “I’m not crazy.” He didn’t regret the lie.

Merrell let it drop. “There remains the matter of how powerful you really are,” he murmured more to himself than to Jet. “I bound you once.”

Oh, that. Jet had let himself be caught. But he wasn’t about to say so now.

“I want you to try everything in your power to escape me this time. We need to know now whether or not you can be stopped.”

Why? Jet wanted to ask, but he didn’t. What would happen if Merrell realized he couldn’t hold Jet? Would he try to eliminate him as a threat? Jet wasn’t sure he wanted to test that theory. “Go ahead,” he said to Merrell, fully intending to fake it like he had done the last time.

Merrell seized him with shadow. Jet pretended to struggle for a minute before he realized that Merrell wasn’t buying it, then he merged with Merrell’s shadow and reformed on the other side of it.

Merrell didn’t let up. He threw fire at Jet, who instinctively absorbed it, becoming the flame. Next Merrell drenched him in water and immediately froze it, thinking to encase Jet’s essence. Jet was so startled that he shattered the ice wall without thinking, sending shards flying in every direction, including straight back at Merrell.

They never touched the Enforcer, who threw up a shield of light. “Sorry!” Jet grunted, already throwing himself to the side as a light spear as thick as his arm came hurtling towards him. Okay, so Merrell was touchy about getting attacked, even if it was by mistake. Jet would have to remember that.

The spear grazed Jet’s ribs. If Jet had been thinking clearly instead of just reacting, he would have allowed himself to bleed and end this silly game. But Jet had lived too many years by instinct and he couldn’t help dissolving the portion of him that was about to get skewered until the threat had passed.

Merrell’s eyes widened. He stopped his attacks. “I can’t hurt you,” he said in wonder.

“Is that what you were trying to do?” Jet said, getting angry now that he had a chance to think. “So now what? Are you going to try to kill me next?”

Merrell shook his head. “I don’t think I can,” he admitted. “Jet, I’m going to ask you again. Stay. Let me teach you about the Family and about Attania. I’d rather have you on our side than alone out there, running loose. Give us the benefit of the doubt.”

Oh, so now Merrell wanted to play nice? Jet’s reasons for coming to Arden hadn’t changed. He hadn’t changed either. The only thing that had changed was Merrell’s perception of him. “I still want to learn,” he said. “About the Family and Attania and history and geography—all of it. I also want to be able to read those books you said I couldn’t before.”

Merrell said, “Of course. You wear the grays. Ask Macek where Arden’s Family library is. He can show you.”

“Okay, I will.” Jet figured his session with Merrell was over for the day as the older man sat back down at his desk and stared pensively at the ceiling. Merrell seemed shook up, not quite his usual self-assured self. Jet wasn’t about to tell him, but he was pretty sure he could be killed. All it would take was someone piercing him through from behind when he wasn’t expecting it. Jet was flesh and blood like everybody else. If someone struck him before he had time to shift, he would bleed and he could die. Eventually Merrell would figure that out, but hopefully not soon. “So I—uh—I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Merrell’s gaze shot back to Jet. “Wear your grays.”

Jet felt foolish the next morning at breakfast in his gray uniform. Everyone stared at him, especially Daniel. Macek ignored him, and if it bothered him that the two of them wore the same grays, he didn’t let on. Daniel pulled him aside at the end of their session and whispered, “Uncle T tested you? Already? And you passed?” He ran his eyes up and down Jet’s uniform. “I’ve been waiting since last summer to be called for testing. If it’s a matter of pure skill, I should have gotten my grays long ago.” Daniel glanced at Macek, who was busy teaching Tommy to hold fire without letting it burn him. “He lets his own kid wear the gray. Jet, after we’re done with this punishment, I expect Uncle T will put you in my group since we’re the most advanced here.”

“Punishment? No, I asked to stay in the beginner class, Daniel. I really don’t know that much about how the Family works.”

Daniel smiled and slowly shook his head. “We’ll see. I can teach you what you need to know just as easily as Macek can. Let me talk to my father about it. There’s no reason Uncle T has to teach you on your own. Just because you can do a little weather-working? I could probably do it too if I wanted to.”

Jet didn’t bother to tell Daniel that it was the King who had asked Merrell to take him under his wing. “I’d better go.”

Merrell was waiting for him outside his office. He nodded approvingly when he saw Jet’s uniform. “Good. You’re ready. Let’s go.” Merrell led the way outside and used wind to pull a cloud to him. “You know how to ride one of these things?” he asked, slanting a look at Jet.

That was a trick Jet had learned from one of the books in Doll’s library. He wondered if Merrell was testing him. “Yeah,” he said, pulling his own cloud out of the sky. It was a balancing act without letting himself go incorporeal, but that was part of the fun. Jet used wind to keep himself atop the cloud and push himself across the sky. It effectively hid him from anyone who happened to glance up from below, which was the point. “Where are we going?” he shouted as his cloud zipped after Merrell’s.

“To Darcy,” Merrell shouted back. This must have been the method Merrell had suspected Jet of using when he confronted him the other day. Jet wished he had thought of it then. “I want you to see where the King lives.”

Why? Was King Roy back from his travels already? Jet had gotten the impression from the Queen that he would be gone for some time. They flew over the center of Darcy and slowed down near a green park. Jet still couldn’t see any building. He did, however, see the gray-suited men who surrounded the park, more than seemed necessary for such a place. They landed, and Jet used flame briefly to dry out his clothes, which were damp from the cloud. Merrell gave him a withering look, then did the same thing.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Merrell asked, brushing down his now-dry clothes.

Jet shrugged. He honestly didn’t remember. It could have been something he read in one of those books he wasn’t supposed to have read, or it could have been something he’d always been able to do. “I thought you were going to bring me to the King’s house.”

Merrell pointed. In front of them was a great mansion, even larger than Arden. Jet stared. “I couldn’t see anything from above,” he said. “How did you do that?”

“So I’ve finally found something you don’t know,” Merrell remarked, moving forward towards the house. “I was beginning to worry.”

Merrell’s enforcers parted ranks so they could walk through. Jet thought it was pointless to hide the building if they were going to surround it with very visible guards, but what did he know?

The King’s house was built like a fortress with high, small windows and sheer walls. No balconies or extensions, nothing to mar the solid, functional mass of it. If Jet hadn’t seen Arden, a sprawling version of this same design, he wouldn’t have thought it a house at first glance. A prison, maybe.

Queen Sephira was in. She showed them to a small sitting room off the main lobby. The inside of the house was much more spacious than the outside would have led Jet to believe. The inner rooms, away from any windows, opened up into courtyards with hanging plants and views of the sky. Oh, so that’s why it couldn’t be seen from above, Jet realized.

The Queen dressed casually today in a short skirt and even shorter top. “Thomas,” she said cautiously, ignoring Jet. “What brings you by today? Any word from Roy?” Now she looked at Jet, her eyes widening slightly at his gray uniform. “Have the results come in already?”

“Not yet,” Merrell answered. “I’m just showing Jet around today. Roy asked me to.”

Queen Sephira’s lips tightened. “Then I won’t keep you,” she said, excusing herself. Jet watched her go back out into the adjacent courtyard and kneel down next to a rosebush. Her little shirt rode up when she leaned forward, baring an intriguing section of her back. Jet tore his eyes away to focus on what Merrell was saying.

“ . . . Daniel’s mother lived here,” he finished.

“What?” Jet had missed the first part.

“I said, this place is much brighter with Sephira’s gardens than when Daniel’s mother lived here. Let’s go out back. I want to show you something.”

Jet followed Merrell through the center courtyard to the other end of the house. “Daniel was born here—in Darcy?” Jet asked. He had wondered, since Sephira was obviously not Daniel’s mother. “What happened to Daniel’s real mother?”

“She died,” Merrell said shortly. “The King needed a Queen in Darcy so he remarried. Sephira is a good match for him. She keeps him young.”

“If I’m—if I’m King Roy’s son too—“ Jet found it difficult to organize his thoughts. “—from Low City, I mean—how many other kids does he have in total?” Jet recalled various news programs he’d seen growing up showing a much younger-looking King Roy with a different Queen and children who, by now, would be even older than the ones currently at Arden.

“Altogether?” Merrell frowned. “Twelve, if you include Roderick.”

“Where are the rest?” Jet knew about the ones at Arden. That left six other siblings unaccounted for.

“They live in different cities around Attania. Why do you ask?”

Jet said, “I just thought, since they’re royal, you’d keep them close.” Like me, he almost said.

“The two youngest haven’t come into their powers yet and still live with their mothers. And the oldest are already in government positions in various cities across Attania. Not all royals have the same level of power, and even if they did, they are safer elsewhere.

“Is that what will happen to the kids at Arden?” Jet asked, thinking of Daniel’s explanation. “They’ll be sent out to other cities?”

“Most of them,” Merrell replied. “A few will take over the reins here in Darcy when the time comes.”

It was pretty much what Daniel had told him. However, “What do you mean ‘safer?’”

Merrell asked, “What do you know about Attania’s politics?”

“Nothing,” Jet admitted.

“Look over there.”

‘Over there’ was a patch of land bare of everything except rocks. It didn’t look right so close to the house. Beyond it, the so-called park glowed green in the afternoon sun. Jet could see several gray-suited enforcers walking back and forth between the trees. “What is it?” he asked.

“A burial site. Too many of Attania’s Kings are buried here, along with their wives who died, and the children who didn’t make it to adulthood. We don’t advertise their deaths or glorify them. But we need to remember. Each and every one of them was murdered.”

“Murdered? How?” Jet stared at the jumbled rocks. There were no markers, nothing to indicate this was a graveyard.

“From now on, any time you need to travel using your elemental abilities, you use a cloud like we did today. I’ll teach you how we hide this place from outside eyes. The Families control the elements, but we are few and not well-loved. Non-family murdered them. We must constantly be on our guard against attack.”

“Why are we not well-loved?” Jet picked out that one phrase. He had seen it himself, in Low City. The Family were tolerated but not especially liked. Even in Low City, Family kept to themselves and had their own neighborhoods, sports teams, their own television shows. It wasn’t as pronounced as it was here in Darcy. Jet suddenly put it all together. “Is that why there are only Family in Darcy?”

“Merrell nodded. “Darcy allows only Family, to protect the King and the rest of the royals. It doesn’t work in the rest of Attania, unfortunately. There are too many non-family. Keeping order in a country where we are the minority is not easy. We must necessarily be ruthless when it comes to transgressions, or run the risk of being overthrown. There are too many of them and too few of us, no matter our abilities.”

“So what do you do to keep order in the rest of Attania?”

“Whatever we have to,” Merrell replied grimly. Jet thought of Janna and the great fire in the non-family’s portion of Low City.

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