The Reluctant Prince

By Eve Mak All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 22

King Roy sat in the apartments he had brought Jet to when Jet had called the rainstorm upon Darcy. It was much larger than the quarters the students were given, as well it should be. These were the King’s rooms.

The King steepled his fingers and regarded Jet over the top of them. “You wear the grays,” he observed. “Of course you do.” He glanced at his brother, who also wore his gray uniform. King Roy himself did not. “Have you told him?”

Merrell frowned. “That he’s your son by blood as well as by deed? Yes, that came up while you were gone.”

“Roderick, my boy. I’m so glad we finally found you. I never believed you were dead.” He glanced at Merrell and away. “Never.”

Jet thought it was the other way around. He had found them. If he’d known what it would lead to, would he still have made the Family notice him? Yes, probably. Despite everything, he was glad he had made the decision to come to Darcy.

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Roy reproached his brother. He looked at Jet. “I want to claim you officially as my son. And my successor.”

“It’s too early to decide that yet,” Merrell interjected, leaning forward. “Charles or another of the young ones might prove more—“ Merrell chose his words carefully. “—suited.”

“Don’t think you’re going to get him,” King Roy replied with a scowl, leaning in as well so that the two brothers were almost head to head. “There are no others as—“ he cut off and gave Jet an appraising stare. “Has he been to see Sephira?”

Merrell leaned back, point made. “He’s been,” he said, making Jet redden in embarrassment as he caught the implications. Merrell was deliberately letting his father think Jet had been intimate with the King’s wife, and the scary part was his father did not seem at all bothered by the idea.

“Wait a minute!” Jet protested.

But the two older men had forgotten Jet was in the room. King Roy slumped down in his chair, weary but resigned. “Then we’ll announce him as my son for now,” he decided. “Next week, at the compound in Darcy. I want to have all my children around me for the announcement.”

“That’s not wise, Roy,” Merrell said. “All of them at once might prove too tempting to the groups who are looking for opportunities to get to us.”

“We’ll be in Darcy, surrounded by your enforcers. What could possibly happen?” King Roy said sarcastically. Jet realized there was some bad blood between the two royal brothers after all.

That reminded him. “Uh, sir?” Jet glanced quickly at Merrell, who was not going to be pleased. “Daniel wanted me to ask you when will he be tested for his grays?”

Jet was right. Merrell was furious. Jet saw his back stiffen as he sat up straighter. “He’s not ready.”

“Nonsense,” King Roy replied. “He’s of an age with Roderick. He should be tested—especially now.”

Why especially now? King Roy and Merrell both tiptoed around whatever troubles were plaguing Attania. “What the hell is going on that everybody’s so afraid to talk about?” Jet demanded.

Merrell and King Roy exchanged a long glance. Not enemies, then. Jet wasn’t sure what they were to each other. Finally, Merrell spoke. “Family are being murdered all across Attania. It’s not random attacks any longer but a concerted effort to wipe us out. You’ll excuse us if we seem hesitant about making this common knowledge.”

When Merrell had first taken Jet to the King’s compound, he had told him about the attacks on Family and even shown him the graveyard of royals they didn’t want the general public to know had been killed. Jet had realized the seriousness of the situation then. Nothing in all his years in Low City had alerted him to the fact that the Family were targets. In Low City, he had thought they were the bullies. Merrell had certainly seemed to prove that theory. But what Merrell was saying now is it had gotten even worse? Why wasn’t it all over the news? “Why isn’t it on the news?” he asked.

“We’ve kept it hidden as much as possible.”

How? Jet wondered. Like he did with that boy in Salter—Pat Riven? Jet had no doubt Merrell would have killed him outright if it hadn’t been for Jet being there. Merrell was still trying to win Jet to the Family’s way of thinking. But all it was doing was making Jet more confused.

“They’ve been going after Family towns. It’s almost as if they know there aren’t a lot of us left and they’re systematically trying to wipe us out.”

“Why?”

Merrell just gave him a look. “We have powers. They don’t. We’re in charge. They’re not.”

“Yeah, but most of the Family hardly use their powers,” Jet pointed out.

“And why do you think that is?” King Roy picked up the conversation. “For so many years we’ve tried to downplay our differences until now the regular Family either can’t or don’t automatically think to use whatever small abilities they have left. You’ve seen the results. Tom told me he brought you to Salter.”

“Yeah, but those were just kids.”

“We can’t be sure of that. The damage they did was very real. Thank you, by the way, for saving Salter with your rainmaking. Only a weather-worker could have brought Salter back like that. The rebels knew I was in the West. You must have surprised the hell out of them by working the weather like you did. Whoever they are, their leaders are well-informed about us. They couldn’t have known about you, though.”

When King Roy grinned, he looked a whole lot younger. Jet returned the smile a little uncertainly. And yet the King was planning to openly recognize Jet as his long-lost son. Merrell obviously had the same thought, for he scowled and said, “They do now.”

“Thanks to you. Roderick has inherited the King’s powers. He isn’t going to be an enforcer.”

“We’ll see,” Merrell answered.

“What did you do in the West?” Jet asked, trying to get the two brothers back on topic.

“Officially? I visited my wives and children in Saffron and Tashkan. Unofficially I took care of the towns, and there were several, where Family had been murdered. You heard about the droughts? My doing. I directed the lightnings to scour the earth and cleanse the destroyed towns so it wouldn’t be obvious that Family had just died there. The fires made it look like they were just displaced.”

Part of Jet was relieved that his weather-working in Salter hadn’t caused the drought out west after all. But he was still disturbed. “A lot more than just Family towns must have been displaced.”

King Roy shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “Fire spreads.”

It seemed like a lot of work just to cover up someone else’s crimes. “Why don’t you just let the non-family have a say in their government? Step back? If we’re so few, why are we the ones in charge anyway? Maybe if we backed off, they would too.”

“Oh, now you’re a political expert?” Merrell asked. “And how do you propose we do that? We would be massacred. Staying in power is our only defense.”

Jet thought that was a load of crap, but Merrell was right—he knew nothing about politics. “So what do we do?”

King Roy shook his head. “That’s not why I called you here,” he said. “I don’t expect you to immediately assume the responsibilities of leadership. Now that it’s official you are Roderick, I want to have you formally tested.” He held up his hand when Jet and Merrell both would have spoken. “Even though you already wear the grays. Your weather-working alone assured that. But I need to know what else you can do, since you’ve had no formal training like the others. It’s a King’s prerogative.” He shot the last at Merrell, who glowered at this usurpation of his duties. “I’ll test you along with Daniel.”

“Test me how?” Jet asked. “Merrell knows what I can do.”

Merrell shook his head slightly where King Roy couldn’t see. ‘Don’t show him,’ he mouthed behind the King’s back.

Why not? Jet wondered. King Roy was not only the King, he also was Jet’s biological father. If, as everybody kept saying, the King was more powerful than any other elemental user, then maybe he could do some of the things that Jet could do too. Maybe Jet had inherited his unusual abilities from his father.

“Get Daniel and you’ll see,” the King replied enigmatically in dismissal. Jet shrugged. He was going to miss the advanced class yet again. On the other hand, Daniel would probably be glad to get out of his class.

Merrell followed Jet out the door. “You can’t tell him you can dissolve your body and take on the essence of your elements.” He spoke softly, barely above a whisper as they traveled down the long hallway towards the practice rooms. “Whatever you do, don’t let him see that. Don’t let anyone else know how much you’re capable of.”

Too late. Doll knew. “Why not?” Jet asked, genuinely curious. What was the big deal besides showing off how skilled he was at using the elements? Wasn’t that the whole point of being tested?

“Because that kind of power doesn’t exist!” Merrell hissed. “It’s impossible. But since you can do it—and you are really Roderick Estee—we must be wrong. And if we are wrong about that, then everything we have done, everything we are is a lie!”

In a roundabout way, Jet understood what Merrell was saying. Not exactly. Not all of it. But enough. “I get why you don’t want me telling the others, but why can’t I tell my father?” As he was saying it, Jet cringed. It was the first time he had referred to King Roy as his father out loud, and it sounded ridiculous even if it was true. The man was barely a father to his many offspring. Why should Jet expect anything more?

Merrell pulled Jet to one side and leaned in to whisper harshly, “Your father rules because he has no choice! He hates having to take care of problems like the one in the West. Years ago, he had to quell an uprising in the East. It haunts him still. If he had even the smallest inkling that our authority in Attania was not completely necessary to ensure the Family’s survival, it would drive him wild with guilt! Then who would we get to be King—you? Hmm?”

Jet blinked at Merrell’s vehemence. King Roy didn’t want to be King? Well, that was understandable. Jet didn’t want to be King either. “Okay, okay!” he said, pushing past Merrell.

“Jet.” Merrell stopped him before Jet got too far ahead. “Be careful what you show them. Not just that—but everything.”

Jet nodded. He was always careful. Even when he wasn’t, it was calculated. He had a lot of experience mistrusting people as he was growing up. Why should it be any different now that he was among Family?

Jet knocked on the door of the advanced practice room. He didn’t notice where Merrell had gone, probably back to the King’s quarters.

The advanced class wasn’t there. Or at least that’s what it looked like at first glance. Jet poked his head inside. He guessed they were pretty advanced at that. A part of him twinged with regret that he had missed his opportunity to participate with this group. He might have picked up a few tricks from them.

As it was, although Jet was tempted to snap his fingers and ‘find’ them the way he uncovered his hidden treasures, he refrained. Merrell didn’t want him showing all that he could do, and that skill, apparently, was one of the lost arts. So Jet just assumed the students were in the room because where else would they be at this time?

“Daniel?” he called out, slipping into the room.

A shadow detached itself from the wall and suddenly Jet could see Daniel. Another spot of brightness near the window resolved itself into a tall, angular girl whose name Jet couldn’t remember. Suddenly the room was swarming with students who hadn’t been there a moment ago. It wasn’t what Jet could do; they did not become shadow or light, but they used the elements to hide themselves, enough so that they remained perfectly hidden—like the books in the royal library that Jet’s grandfather had accidentally discovered.

Jet looked closer. Yes, that was Lorra’s face showing through the light from the window. As he stared at her, she let the light fall away. She really was short, for Family. And plump in all the right places. Jet had to stop thinking like that. Lorra was his cousin. Jet quickly said to Daniel, “We’re getting tested.”

Daniel had Jet back through the door before the last words left Jet’s mouth. “About time,” he grumbled, taking Jet by the arm. Then he stopped. “You too? But you already have your grays.”

Jet shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s just what he told me.”

King Roy let them in. “You know what to expect?” Daniel nodded but Jet shook his head. He had no idea. The King explained. “The testing is to determine which elements you have control over, and how you respond in different situations. It shouldn’t take long. Either you qualify or you don’t. Roderick, you cannot use any weather skills, as that would not be fair. We already know you can work weather, and you already have your grays because of it. Daniel can, if he is able.”

Daniel’s lips tightened at his father’s reminder that Jet had already surpassed him.

To Jet’s surprise, King Roy led them past Merrell’s office to the patio outside, where he swept them all up in a fierce wind and carried them away from Arden to his compound in Darcy. Jet didn’t know if he would have been able to carry three people bodily so far so quickly. The King truly was powerful.

Now that they were here, Jet could see the sense of it. The King’s compound was hidden from prying eyes in all directions. It was isolated and guarded by Merrell’s elite enforcers.

King Roy deposited them in an inner courtyard. The Queen was nowhere to be seen, but Merrell was already there waiting for them. This wasn’t the same courtyard Jet had visited the last two times he was here. It was open to the sky but bare of plants or furniture.

“The Enforcer has prepared the test grounds. You will follow my commands, however. I will be testing you both.”

Daniel and Jet nodded.

Suddenly, despite the open sky above, the entire courtyard was plunged into darkness. It was so black that Jet couldn’t see his own hands.

“First Test,” King Roy intoned from somewhere within the dark space. “Dispel shadow.”

Macek had said that there could be no shadow without light, but Jet couldn’t see any light at all. Still, he had never completely believed Macek’s lesson anyway. Didn’t he dwell in total darkness beneath the subway? He always made his own light there. Jet gathered his thoughts.

A glimmer from somewhere else in the space caught his attention. The glimmer grew and grew, eating at the darkness until Jet could make out Daniel casting about himself with a sword of light. Belatedly, Jet used the trick he’d learned by watching Macek in the Family library at Arden, and light glowed softly and evenly across the stone floor.

“First point to Daniel,” the King’s voice intoned.

Ah, so it was a contest, was it?

At that moment, the afternoon sky appeared above them once more as the artificial shadow was lifted from the courtyard. Daniel smirked triumphantly a few feet away.

“Second Test. Solidify shadow.”

The courtyard now swam in sunlight but there were still plenty of shadows in the far corners. Jet grabbed a handful of shadow and fashioned himself a chair, which he sat in to prove how solid it was. Daniel, who had made a shadow sword, gaped at him in astonishment.

“Second point is Roderick’s.”

Daniel scowled.

Jet felt bad. He already had his grays. This was Daniel’s test. He resolved to back off and let Daniel have the next one.

“Third Test. Fire.”

What was he supposed to do? Jet looked to Daniel for some clue. Daniel had a giant ball of flame spinning above his head. Without warning, he chucked it at Jet who, not even thinking, reacted by dousing it with water. “What the hell, Daniel?” he said angrily.

“Daniel two points, Roderick one,” the King’s voice droned, sounding bored. Merrell was uncharacteristically silent and, except for his voice which seemed to come from everywhere at once, King Roy was nowhere in sight.

“Fourth Test. Solidify light.”

Daniel lunged at Jet with a brilliant sword. Jet countered by grabbing a sunbeam and pulling himself up towards the open sky. “Is this how it’s supposed to go?” he called down to Merrell or the King, whoever was in charge. “Why is Daniel attacking me?”

There was no answer from below so Jet just hung there halfway up to the sky. He supposed holding onto a beam of solid light qualified.

“Point to Daniel.”

Okay, so whoever completed the task first got the point. Good to know.

“Fifth Test. Water.”

Again, no specific command was given. Jet quickly pulled water from the air much as he’d done to counter Daniel’s fireball, but this time he froze it into ice and rained down stinging pellets upon all their heads.

“Disqualification,” King Roy’s monotone voice complained. “Roderick used weather-working.”

“I did not!” Jet protested. He’d only turned water into ice using a bit of shadow. That’s all.

“Point to Daniel.”

Daniel had managed to pull a small cloud overhead and a steady stream of light rain melted Jet’s ice pellets where they had accumulated in the courtyard. His eyes were narrowed as he stared up at Jet, who still hung from one hand on his sunbeam. “I can work weather too,” Daniel called up, although the amount of water he pulled was nowhere near what Jet’s had been.

Before Jet could reply, Daniel pulled a bolt of lightning from his cloud and directed it at Jet. Jet automatically absorbed it because he couldn’t avoid it. If it had hit his corporeal self he would have been badly burned. Sorry Merrell, he thought. Letting go of his sunbeam as he took back his solid shape—he had gone incorporeal for no more than a few seconds—Jet slid down to the stone floor.

There was no awarding of points. There was no sound at all. Jet stalked over to Daniel and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “What are you trying to do?” he shouted. “That could have killed me!”

Daniel stared at him without speaking, seeming shocked that Jet had not taken damage from the hit. The lightning bolt was no accident.

“Point, Daniel.” King Roy’s voice was hoarse with some emotion. “Daniel was given permission to use weather-working in his testing. Roderick was not.” The King came out of the alcove where he’d been observing the tests. His face was white and drawn, but his voice had steadied. “I think I’ve seen enough. Daniel, you have achieved enough points to pass. You have earned the grays.”

Daniel whooped with pleasure, pushing Jet’s hands away. Jet remained where he was, a little stunned at the outcome. Not a word about Daniel’s attempt to kill him. Daniel didn’t even try to make an excuse for what he had done.

Only Merrell had something to say. “Daniel may have gained enough points, but he is not ready to move up to the grays. He has no self-control.”

Daniel snorted. “I have no self-control? Who used weather-working when he was specifically told it wasn’t allowed? Who ran away from Arden and did who knows what in Low City? Who brought a girl who has no bloodline to Arden? Who--?”

“What?” King Roy interrupted Daniel’s tirade. “What girl?”

“Some low-level Family from Low City. Jet’s old lover.”

Jet drew back his fist and punched Daniel in the face.


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