The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 1

TEN YEARS LATER

Laughing, Jet flung the wind away from him and jumped off the building. His long black hair, braided to keep it out of his face, tangled behind him worse than usual and he thought, not for the first time that night, that he ought to cut it off.

He owned the night and everything in it, including the wind and the dark. Stepping lightly, he landed on the street and continued walking uptown towards the black, silent library on Ell Street. Nobody bothered Jet. They wouldn’t dare. Jet was one of the elite, an elemental user. That meant he was an aristocrat, but Jet lived among the flotsam of human society as far away from the aristocracy as he could get.

“Hello, Doll,” he said, strolling casually up the stone steps and into the front entrance of the library. It was nearly closing time, but Jet didn’t care. He made his own hours.

The dark-haired girl at the desk looked up and blushed when she saw him. Her real name was Doll, but her name tag said ‘Ms. Spencer.’ Only Jet called her Doll outside of her own family. “Hi Jet,” she said shyly. “We’re closing in a few minutes.”

Jet grinned. “I’ll let myself out,” he said. Then he paused and faced her desk squarely. “Do you want to keep me company? I’ll see you get out safely.”

Doll shook her head. “No, but thank you,” she replied. Her heart beat just a little bit faster. Jet’s way of getting out involved smoke and shadows and who knew what else. It was not for the likes of her. Her family would be mortified. None of the Family used their elemental skills unless expressly given leave to do so by the ruling Family. None except Jet. He insisted he wasn’t one of them, but what else could he be?

“Well then, you haven’t seen me.” Giving Doll a final grin, Jet jumped up to the next staircase with a little assist from a wind that should not have been there, startling an older gentleman who was coming down the steps with an armful of books. He stared after Jet in something close to awe. Doll also watched as the trim young man disappeared around a corner into the shadows of the upper level. She sighed.

Much later, when the main lights went out and a deep silence descended on the library, Jet called a small flicker of cool moonlight to his table. It came through a tall window and remained, a silvery ball that glowed with just enough light for Jet to read the text in front of him. It was history of sorts, one not allowed to the general public. It contained information on the elements and their uses. Jet had found it locked within a hidden room reserved for certain high-level Family members only. But locked doors had never stopped Jet. Passing through them was one of the first elemental skills Jet had ever learned. These references had taught him many more.

Jet looked up when he heard a disturbance in the outer hall. He grinned and set the book he had been reading aside. Baiting the families had become his nightly entertainment lately. It must have been the old man who had given him away tonight. Not Doll. He wouldn’t believe that of her, even if she was part of the Family. He left the book where they could see it. Let them wonder what he had been doing with it.

Last night he had appeared in the middle of a sporting event—in the center of it, actually—to the cheers of the non-Family patrons to whom Jet had become something of a hero—and the appalled gasps of the dark-haired Family members in the crowd. They did not like to flaunt their various abilities. The general public was cowed just knowing the Family had certain abilities. Jet was fast taking the mystery out of things, and the Family didn’t like it.

They wanted to catch him. For a hundred reasons, they wanted to hold him and own him. It was never going to happen. Jet wasn’t one of them. He might have dark hair like theirs, but so did a whole lot of other people. He might have similar abilities, except he wasn’t one of theirs. He couldn’t be.

He followed the moonlight through a crack in the tall window and rode it up into the night sky. The dark-haired police officer who eventually got his master key to unlock the door to the off-limits reading room looked around wildly before glancing at the firmly closed window in time to see Jet rise up in the air. Jet shook his head. Even now the policeman wouldn’t use his abilities to follow after Jet for fear that someone would see. High above, Jet laughed derisively.

Jet spotted movement in the shadows far below in a narrow alley beside the library. Several police cars had all pulled up front and, except for the one dark-haired policeman who had bravely gone up the stairs, the others, non-family, all milled about the entrance. Jet let the moonlight carry him softly back down. The shadow in the alley turned out to be Doll. He had thought it might be.

“What are you doing here?” he whispered as he landed lightly beside her. Doll jumped at the sound of his voice, but recovered quickly.

“I was worried about you,” she whispered back. “I saw that man calling someone as he left. Jet, you really shouldn’t let others see you use your abilities like that.”

“Why not?” Jet raised an eyebrow, but he couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. “Why shouldn’t I?”

Doll floundered for a reply. “Because. . . because! Come on, let’s get out of here.” Doll glanced quickly at the mouth of the alley, brightly lit from the street light. The policemen really didn’t want to confront Jet, so they weren’t looking too hard, but that could change at any moment.

Jet liked Doll. She was quiet and she let him do what he was going to do anyway without argument, like sneak into the library after hours. He knew she was one of the Family, but she had never shown him her particular ability. She was a good little girl. “All right, where are we going?”

Doll stopped, clearly not having thought that far ahead. “I guess we could go to my house,” she said doubtfully. “You’ll have to be quiet, though, so my parents don’t hear you.”

“Oh, I can do that,” Jet assured her, his eyes shining with mirth. He’d never been invited into one of the Family’s homes before. Grabbing hold of Doll’s hand—it was soft in his own—Jet pulled her after him into a shadow and kept the shadows around them as they rounded the corner of the alley and walked right past the policemen. Doll gasped softly but she didn’t let go of his hand.

“Where to?” Jet asked after they had moved a few streets away.

In answer, Doll raised her arm for a taxi. Jet put it back down gently, shaking his head. His eyes still radiated amusement. “Where to?” he whispered again, this time in Doll’s ear. She gave him the address, and Jet grabbed a moonbeam and swung them both up and over the tops of buildings in the general direction of Doll’s house.

Doll shook from fright and clung tightly to Jet’s body as he lifted them over the city. She lived near the big bridge which crossed over from this part of the city to the poorer part. For one of the Family, it wasn’t a desirable area, but it was not highly guarded either. Jet hadn’t realized there were some Family who were poorer than the rest. He set her down near the front steps. Her house was a narrow brick building in a row of similar brick buildings. She dug a key out of her purse with shaking fingers, much to Jet’s amusement.

“Wait here,” she told him, slipping inside the door as soon as she unlocked it. She was probably about Jet’s age, just coming into womanhood, which meant she was slender with only a few small curves. She had fit quite nicely into Jet’s arms. “Okay, it’s clear,” she announced a few minutes later, opening the door wider for Jet to come in.

Jet looked about curiously as Doll led him down a darkened hallway past two sets of closed doors towards the upstairs staircase. Being invited in was a novelty for Jet. The house was comfortable and looked lived-in from what he could see of it. He wondered where Doll’s parents were. Perhaps they were behind one of the closed doors they had tiptoed past. He would have been interested to meet them too. Maybe another time.

“Do you need to use the bathroom?” Doll whispered, opening yet another door.

Jet suppressed a laugh. He supposed he did smell a little ripe, and his hair definitely needed to be tamed. Where he lived wasn’t nearly as nice as this. Baths were hard to come by, and he honestly didn’t think about them all that often. “Sure.” He shrugged his shoulders and went into the bath room, closing the door behind him.

Jet had been in fancy bath rooms before, in hotels and department stores. He knew what the small sink and the little towels were for, but the gleaming white tub behind its own curtain threw him momentarily. He had a sudden flashback memory from his childhood of himself in a tub like this, splashing happily amid soapy bubbles while Janna tried to scrub him clean. Janna. He hadn’t thought of her in years. He wondered how she was doing these days, and if her own children were grown like he was now.

Bubbles. Jet quickly moved through the room, opening and closing cabinets. Ah, here was something that looked like it might be bubbles. Holding the glass container in one hand, he opened the door, unsurprised to see Doll waiting in the hallway for him. “Is this all right to put in the tub?” he asked, drawing a startled look from the girl.

“Oh! Well, yes, yes certainly. Are you going to take a bath, then?”

Jet raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that what you asked me to do?”

Doll blushed. “I —yes, yes of course, take a bath. I’ll get you some more towels.” She ran down the hallway, leaving Jet to stare after her. There already was a towel hanging by small sink.

Without waiting for Doll to get back with the promised towels, Jet stripped off his clothes and stepped into the tub, frowning for a moment until he figured out how to turn on the water. He was pleased to discover one of the taps released hot water, which meant he didn’t need to bother heating it on his own. Adjusting the flow, he poured in some of the bubble-making stuff and sank back. He’d have to get Doll to invite him over more often—or he could just pop over himself when everybody was asleep. But no, now that Doll was his friend, that would probably be considered rude.

He ducked his head under the water and rubbed it vigorously, loosening up the tiny braids he used to keep his hair under control. The accumulated dirt from his scalp and his skin turned the pretty bubbles a rusty brown color. He ended up draining the water and refilling it, minus the bubbles. He ran his hands through his hair as best he could and then, with a contented sigh, raised himself up and reached for the little towel over by the sink. Where was Doll with the towels she promised?

Opening the bath room door, Jet found a stack of towels on the floor but no Doll. He grabbed one and wrapped it around himself and went looking for her. He found her a few doors down, rummaging through a closet.

“Oh, I didn’t hear you come out,” she said, turning around. Her face turned bright red as she saw Jet standing with just a towel wrapped around his middle. Doll averted her eyes. “I found you something to wear,” she said, holding out a bundle of cloth. “It’s my father’s, so it might be a little big.”

Jet sat on the edge of the bed. “Will you cut my hair?” he asked, pulling on a damp lock of it. Unbraided, it reached almost down to his back. He could see why Doll didn’t want him to put his old clothes back on. Now that he was clean, they smelled pretty strong to him, too. But he wasn’t too happy wearing someone else’s cast-offs, especially ones made for a much heavier—and shorter—man. He held up the pants and frowned. “Won’t your father mind?”

Doll reddened even more. “Um, he’s not home right now,” she admitted. “I could wash yours for you if you prefer.”

Jet nodded and stretched out on Doll’s father’s bed. “I’d prefer that,” he answered with a grin as Doll suddenly stared at the ceiling. He wasn’t so innocent; he knew what she was thinking. But Doll was innocent, so he’d be good. “How old are you anyway? Fifteen? Sixteen?”

Doll blinked at the change of subject. “I’m seventeen.” She hesitated, watching Jet as he folded his arms in back of his head, stretching out his slim torso. The towel hung low on his hips. “I’ll be right back,” she said quickly.

Grinning to himself, Jet let his eyes rove around her parents’ bedroom. Nice. Comfortable. Big bed. They weren’t well-off, but they were not poor either. Family. He wondered again just what abilities they had that left them this far down on the social scale.

Doll returned with scissors and another towel. “Sit up,” she commanded him, having regained her composure. “I’ll cut your hair.”

Jet obligingly slid to the edge of the bed. Doll studiously avoided looking at his body, concentrating on his wild hair. “How short do you want it?”

“Cut it all off.”

Pursing her lips, Doll set to work. She did not take all Jet’s hair as he had requested, but she shaped it around his face so it was only a few inches long all the way around. He looked younger without all that hair. “How old are you?” she asked curiously.

Jet shrugged. “About your age, I think,” he replied. “Maybe a little younger. Why, is that a problem?” He grinned up at her.

“No, no, it’s just—“ Doll realized Jet was teasing her and blushed again. “You don’t know how old you are? Who are you really, Jet? Everyone says you must be one of us, and I can see now that you look it.” She almost reached out to touch his cheek, pale now without its layer of grime, but then she realized what she was doing and quickly dropped her hand. “You can do such amazing things.”

Jet scowled. “I’m not one of the Family. I don’t care what I look like, I’m not one of you!”

“Are you sure? You know, a long time ago one of the King’s children was kidnapped. It could—“

“It wasn’t me!” Jet growled, and jumped off the bed.


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