The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 16

Merrell was waiting for Jet when the session ended. It didn’t look like Jet was going to get any lunch today, either. For once, he didn’t mind.

Jet wasn’t sure what to expect after their last excursion to Darcy, so he was slightly disappointed when Merrell led him out to the big black car parked at the curb. The driver and two other of Merrell’s gray-suited enforcers were already inside. Wonderful. Jet slid across the seat to make room for Merrell and eyed the two enforcers who sat across from him. Neither one cracked a smile, so Jet didn’t either. He did not like it that he looked like them. With an unconscious shrug, he slouched down in his seat and stretched his legs out.

“Straighten up,” Merrell said predictably.

Jet pulled his feet in. “Tell me where we’re going again, and why I have to be here.”

“The town is called Salter and it’s about a two hour ride from here,” Merrell said. “Mostly farming, a few factories, a small town center. The local enforcer asked us to come. They’ve had a few incidents lately that are more than the usual fights or break-ins. We’re just going to check it out. He’s got one man in custody. Besides,” Merrell slanted a gaze at Jet. “I thought you wanted to learn more about Attania.”

“I do,” Jet answered. “But I don’t want to be an enforcer.”

“Believe me, you’re not,” Merrell replied, then settled in to watch the scenery flow by. Since the other two didn’t look like they wanted to talk either, Jet stared out of his own window. His stomach growled.

He meant to watch the view and get a feel for the land as they slowly came out of the hills surrounding Darcy into a flat plain. But the motion of the car and his own body betrayed him. Jet yawned, closing his eyes briefly to rest them.

“We’re here.” Merrell nudged Jet in the ribs and he came awake suddenly. The other three enforcers were already out of the car. “Sorry,” Jet muttered to Merrell, pulling on the door handle to get out.

Salter’s town center was—quiet. Jet couldn’t imagine anything happening here—trouble or otherwise. The local Family enforcer brought them into a low wooden building to talk to the prisoner. Behind iron bars stood a young man with sandy brown hair and frightened eyes. Non-family, then.

Merrell and his three enforcers, plus Jet, crowded into the little room as the local enforcer prepared to unlock the prison cell. Merrell held up his hand. The local enforcer put away his keys. Merrell drew shadow around himself, making him appear taller, gaunter, more intimidating. He gestured casually, and the metal bars disintegrated with a jangle, falling to the cement floor as a rust-colored powder. The young man inside the cell, not much older than Jet, fell back with a barely suppressed gasp. Merrell’s enforcers stepped forward and wrapped the man in shadows, and pulled him out of the cell.

Jet was more interested in how Merrell had disintegrated the metal bars. He crouched down to examine the leftover powder.

“Jet!”

Jet looked up. Ah, right—image. He really didn’t make a convincing enforcer, gray uniform notwithstanding. That was all right. Jet was pretty sure he understood the trick now. He’d have to try it to be certain, but . . .

“Jet!” Merrell’s voice cut through Jet’s contemplation. “Come here!”

The prisoner was bound head to toe in black shadow with just his eyes showing. The eyes were terrified. Jet walked over to look into them. “What did he do?” he asked Merrell while keeping his eyes on the frightened prisoner.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Merrell suggested, an odd undertone to his voice that Jet couldn’t quite place. Merrell wanted him to talk to the non-family kid.

“All right,” Jet said. He swept his fingers in front of the prisoner’s face. Couldn’t talk to him like this, could he? The shadows fell away, and immediately Jet recognized the connection between what he had just done and what Merrell had done with the iron bars. “Oh, now I get it,” he murmured to himself. He waved his hand, and the rest of the shadows binding the kid fell away.

The kid was no fool. As soon as he was free he bolted. Without really thinking about it, Jet blocked him with air, basically immobilizing him. The prisoner had barely moved two steps. “What did you do?” Jet asked him calmly.

The non-family kid whimpered in fear at Jet’s invisible restraints. “No, stop, let me go, please!” he moaned. If it weren’t for Jet’s bonds of air holding him up, the kid would have collapsed onto the floor.

Jet hadn’t realized the effect his elemental powers would have on someone who was non-family, but Merrell obviously had. The older man smiled in satisfaction and addressed the young prisoner directly. “He will release you but know that there is no escape from us. Now, answer his question.” Merrell nodded at Jet as if he controlled Jet’s actions.

Jet scowled, but he removed the bonds of air that had held the prisoner. It was because he wanted to, not because Merrell told him to. The kid crumpled to the floor and curled into a ball, sobbing. Jet bent down and offered his hand. “Are you all right?”

“Get away from me!” the kid screamed, scrabbling backwards on all fours until he was inside the prison cell, as far away from Jet as he could get. Jet stared at him, speechless.

“You will talk,” Merrell said ominously, flicking a thread of black shadow at the prisoner, who flinched but otherwise did not move. “Who sent you to Salter? What was your mission?”

“What’s your name?” Jet interjected.

The kid looked up at him. “Pat,” he said softly. “Pat Riven. Are you going to kill me?”

“What? No,” Jet said. Merrell didn’t say anything. Jet glanced at Merrell. “You’re not, are you?”

I’m not,” Merrell said.

“What did you do?” Jet asked again. “Why are you so afraid of us?”

The local Family enforcer, who had been quiet up till now, said, “He and a bunch of his friends drove into Salter two days ago looking for work, so they said. When they found out there wasn’t any, they destroyed some fields and terrorized a Family out on the outskirts of town.”

“We did not!” The kid, Pat, said hotly. “We only called them names and threw rocks at them when they ignored us. They did too have work we could have done. They just didn’t want to hire us because we’re outsiders.”

Jet laughed. “Threw rocks at them? “ He couldn’t imagine any Family just standing there letting themselves be hit by rocks. “What did they do to you?”

“They called us,” the local enforcer said. “And we called you. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”

“Where are you from, Pat?” Merrell asked, coming closer. “Why did you come to Salter if you knew it was a Family town? Where are your friends, Pat?”

Jet raised his eyebrows. There were Family towns? Jet had thought Darcy was mostly Family because the King lived there, but maybe he was wrong. “Are there non-family towns too?” he asked.

Merrell gave him a dark look and ignored him.

Pat replied, “From West Barton. We were looking for work, like he said.” Pat’s eyes fixed on the local enforcer, who glared back at him.

“Who sent you to Salter to look for work?”

Pat looked away, but not before Jet noticed his nervous start at Merrell’s question. “Nobody,” Pat mumbled, but Jet knew it was a lie. Why was it a lie? “We just—you know—started driving.”

“And your friends just left you here?”

“They’re not my---“ Pat caught himself. “I guess they got scared and went home.”

“Home being West Barton?” Pat shrugged. Merrell stalked forward and hauled him to his feet. “Answer me!”

Jet shook his head angrily. Pat was just a kid, a non-family kid. “I’ll be outside,” he said, and left them to it. The kid was scared enough of him already.

Salter was dead in the middle of the afternoon. The few tiny stores that dotted the main street had no customers from what Jet could see. He went into a grocery store. The woman behind the counter stared at him with eyes just as apprehensive as those of the kid. But she was Family, from her dark hair to her too pale face. What was she scared about?

Oh. The uniform. Merrell’s enforcers had a reputation of being ruthless even among the Family. Jet bought something to drink and paid for it with the money Ben had given him for emergencies. “Thanks,” he said, but the woman still looked frightened.

Coming outside into the heat, Jet saw one of Merrell’s men herd the non-family kid into the back of their car. Were they planning on taking him back to Darcy?

“No,” Merrell said, catching Jet’s startled expression. “He will serve us better if we send him home. Now he’ll tell his group what will happen to them if the Enforcer is called out again.”

“What will happen to them?”

Merrell clenched his fist. Nearby, a bush, already dry from the heat, crumbled into ash.

“I don’t understand. He’s just a kid.”

“He might be a kid but he belongs to an organization that is known to be hostile towards Family. Those ‘friends’ of his? The ones who abandoned him? Most likely they recruited him from West Barton. At best, they would have indoctrinated him into their belief that all Family are tyrants. At worst, he would have taken the blame for whatever it is they set out to accomplish here, which is exactly what happened. They expected us to kill him. My reason for letting him go is twofold: first, he will tell people, including those in the organization, how powerful Family can be, and second, that we are also just and do not kill indiscriminately as they would have the world believe.”

“Are you sure about this? That he’s a part of this organization? What did they accomplish then besides scaring some Family and damaging a few crops?” And why are the Family here afraid of us too? Jet kept the last part of his questions to himself.

“I’ll show you,” Merrell said, getting into the car. Pat scrambled as far away from Jet as he could, even though that meant sitting closer to one of Merrell’s enforcers. Jet sighed, and took his seat next to Merrell.

They drove about fifteen minutes before stopping again. Pat seemed to recognize the place. His face paled, and he shrank back into his seat. Jet followed Merrell out. The other enforcers stayed in the car with Pat.

“What the hell happened?” Jet asked. There might have been crops here, once, but no more. Fire had burned through entire fields as far as Jet’s eyes could see. It had burned through a house, too. The stark remains of a fireplace was all that was left.

“Those ‘kids’ torched this whole area,” Merrell said. “Including the house. The Family that was in it were lucky to get out alive. These wheat fields were the town’s main livelihood.” He glanced at Jet. “Still think it was an innocent prank?”

“But—they’re Family!” Jet protested. “Couldn’t they have—I don’t know—put out the fire with wind or water? Why did they just let it burn?”

Merrell replied, “For too long we’ve been taught not to use our abilities, to the point where it’s ingrained in most Family. They didn’t think to do what you or I would have done automatically.”

“That’s stupid!” Jet said.

“Yes, it is.”

They both stared at the ravaged land. “Roy should have been here for this,” Merrell said. There was a hint of censure to his tone, the first Jet had heard when he referred to his brother the King. “I can clear the damage, but it will take some weather-working to get this land back in shape for the remainder of the growing season. Do you think you can do it?”

Jet was surprised. This is why Merrell had brought him to Salter? “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I can call rain, but you’re talking about more than just one rainstorm, aren’t you?”

“I am, but it will be a start. Call down the rains, Jet. Soak the earth and let the ash seep deep into the ground. The new crop will be better than the old, and our enemies will realize they cannot win against us.”

Enemies. He had enemies, just by being who he was. Not for the first time, Jet wondered if he had made the right choice in coming to Darcy. “Let’s do it,” he said, and observed with interest as Merrell called the wind and scoured the land. The black car rocked, its windows covered with dirt and ash. Jet raised his arms and called the rains and the lightning to wash away the scars on the land. He thought he saw a face pressed against the window, but it was too dark and stormy to be certain.


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