The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 23

Daniel got his grays. And Jet missed his date to meet Doll two nights in a row. He had to explain to his father the King how he had managed to survive a lightning attack unscathed without giving away his biggest secret. Merrell helped him with that. The King finally accepted their explanation that Daniel had actually missed Jet by a hair, and the bolt was somehow absorbed into Jet’s solid beam of light. The end result was that Daniel walked away without a word of censure. Not even Merrell could hold it against him since Jet was not hurt.

The King had a harder time accepting Jet’s friendship with Doll. “She has a weak bloodline! You have an obligation to pass on your genes to the strongest among us. Surely there’s someone among the cousins who catches your interest?”

“She’s not my lover!” Jet said stubbornly. Not yet, anyway.

Still, it was two days before Jet was able to get away to Darcy. Unbelievably, during those two days, Daniel acted as if nothing had happened between them. He still sat with Jet at lunch and dinner, although Jet pointedly ignored all Daniel’s attempts at conversation.

Jet continued to take over Macek’s morning class and, Merrell be damned, Jet taught those boys what he thought they should know, whether or not it was accepted behavior. The boys loved it. Not one of them mentioned Jet’s unusual lessons outside of the practice room even though Jet hadn’t specifically told them not to. Mattie especially proved a fast learner. Jet showed them all the trick he had observed in the advanced class, of disappearing from view by using their various elements. It was supposed to be an advanced skill, but they didn’t know that and Jet saw no need to tell them. There was a moment when Mattie, hiding in shadow, seemed to meld with the shadows so completely that Jet wondered if he had actually let go of his physical form. But no, there he was, solid as ever. Jet wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Finally, on the third day King Roy went back to Darcy to prepare for the upcoming press announcement. His biological children currently at Arden would stand with the King and Queen for Jet’s formal acknowledgment as Prince Roderick. Merrell had gotten the King to concede that his older offspring would better serve Attania by remaining in place at their various posts around the country, and that his youngest children ought to remain with their respective mothers—in different cities. It was a safety precaution as much as a political statement. Although Darcy was as safe as a Family city could be in these times, Merrell could not guarantee there wouldn’t be an attempt on the royal Family during the proceedings.

Jet used the time while King Roy was gone to sneak off to see Doll. “Miss me?” he asked, sliding into the chair next to hers at the public library where she was studying as usual. “What are you reading?” Curious, he sent a gust of wind to turn her book so he could see it.

“Jet!” Doll protested, although she was smiling.

It was a history of the Family. Jet raised his eyebrows. He quickly flipped through the pages. This was more information than he’d found at Arden’s library. Or maybe he hadn’t known to look. Both he and Macek had been spending their nights randomly skimming through esoteric texts, looking for more lost Family lore. Jet hadn’t really had a chance to study the basics. He started reading.

“I thought you came to see me.”

Quickly Jet pushed the book back towards her. “I did. Sorry.” He reached over to give her a light kiss on the cheek. “Want to get out of here?”

“Where?” But Doll was already closing the textbook.

“My place?”

Doll shook her head.

“Your place?”

Laughing, Doll shook her head again.

“How about we get something to eat?”

That Doll could agree to. They left the library, but not before Jet surreptitiously slipped the textbook about the Family under his shirt. He’d bring it back. Eventually.

Over dinner at a coffee shop near Doll’s school, Jet told her about his upcoming official acceptance into the royal Family.

“Of course it’s a big deal!” Doll said when Jet tried to downplay the announcement. “It will be all over the news! Jet, you’re the King’s son!” Her face clouded with doubt. “Should I call you Roderick now?”

Jet scowled. “No.” Although he had doubts of his own. King Roy would insist upon him taking back his birth name.

Doll wouldn’t let Jet come up to her apartment, kissing him gently at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll be watching you on television,” she promised.

It took all of Jet’s self-control not to just follow her up anyway as wind. Instead, he let the wind guide him home. After this weekend it would be harder to move about in Darcy unnoticed. People were going to know just who he was: King’s son, royal, privileged. Those privileges were more like restrictions, all for the royals’ own good. Jet was beginning to have second thoughts about becoming an enforcer. At least the enforcers had some freedoms.

In his bedroom, Jet took out the book he had stolen from the library. This was all public knowledge, except Jet didn’t know most of it. The book gave a brief description of the early history of the Family. They had originated in the Eastern part of Attania. Only after the Family became rulers of Attania did they claim Darcy as its capital because Darcy was centrally located. That was about six hundred years ago. There was no mention about the esoteric lore the Family was only rediscovering in recent years, nor any mention except generally of the conflict between Family and non-family. According to the book, non-family were a separate species who happened to share Attania with Family.

Jet closed the book and put it with his other treasures. There was no intermarrying between Family and non-family. Was that because they were incompatible? There was sex between them. Jet knew that firsthand. Most of his memories were bad ones, but even with the good ones, there had been heat but no real attraction. Was it because Family and non-family were that different? Jet closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but all he saw in his head were big hands reaching for him, reaching, reaching—until he made himself disappear to get away from it all. He shuddered.

On the morning of the big announcement, they took a car down to Darcy. Merrell insisted upon it. Jet, Daniel, Charles and the three other children of the King who trained at Arden all went. King Roy had insisted upon that.

The King’s compound was still hidden inside the park-like woods which remained heavily patrolled by Merrell’s enforcers, but a steady stream of vehicles were allowed through for the occasion. News media, dignitaries—though not King Roy’s adult offspring—that was another of Merrell’s stipulations—his other offspring remained in their respective cities and towns, just to be safe in case anything did happen.

News cameras were set up outside the broad steps of the King’s compound and they swung around to get shots of the royal children as they exited their limousine. Daniel and the others waved graciously at the cameras but Jet felt like a piece of meat on display. He lowered his head and plowed on through the line of reporters.

King Roy and his lovely young Queen waited on the top step. The King made a show of greeting each of his children with a hug as they lined up on the step below the royal couple.

Daniel stood straight and tall in his crisp new gray uniform. Jet tried not to slouch too much beside him. Jet’s hair had grown out to the point where it just brushed his collar. He had used water to slick it back earlier that morning, but now it fell into his face again. Daniel’s hair, a shade longer, fell neatly around his face, making him look princely where Jet just looked messy.

“Ten years ago . . .” The King had begun speaking. “A great tragedy befell the Estee Family. My young son Roderick was lost and presumed dead in the great fire that engulfed Low City. I am happy to announce that Roderick did not perish as some had thought. The Family never gave up hope that some day Prince Roderick would be found. After years of diligent searching, we have found our lost son. I give you Prince Roderick Estee!”

Jet stood frozen as a spattering of clapping began from the invited guests and the news cameras pushed closer. The fire had begun after he had run away, because he had disappeared. Now the King was using it as an excuse for his disappearance? Was this more of the same—pretending nothing bad had happened so Attania would have no reason to doubt its rulers? Or did the King really believe what he was saying?

Daniel nudged him. They wanted Jet to go up to his father’s level. King Roy hugged him and kissed both his cheeks, beaming with pleasure. “My son!” he proclaimed loudly for the cameras.

Jet smiled stiffly and stood between the King and Queen while they took official photos. The reporters had questions which Merrell deftly fielded as he ushered the royal Family into the compound. There would be a celebratory luncheon in the main dining room with a news conference directly after.

Jet used the commotion to sneak out. Merrell—no, everybody—was going to be mad once they realized he was gone, but Jet had no desire to answer questions about his past and even less desire to hear how Merrell and King Roy would spin what had really happened.

Nobody saw Jet fade to nothingness and then, as a quick breeze, float up and out through the opening in a nearby courtyard. He headed for Darcy proper and Doll.

She was lying on her bed watching the proceedings on television. Reporters still hovered outside the King’s compound, showing various shots of the rarely-seen building before flashing back to images of the royal Family as King Roy made his big announcement. The cameras showed images of Jet’s face as he stood with the other royals on the steps of the compound. All the while, the reporters kept up a running commentary of facts mixed in with speculation about what it all meant for Attania.

Doll jumped as Jet solidified in front of her. “Jet! How can you be here? You’re supposed to be there!” She pointed at the screen.

Jet sat down on the edge of her bed. “It just got over,” he said. “Now they’re all inside having lunch.”

“And you just left? I thought this whole day was about you.”

Jet sighed. “I wasn’t hungry,” he said. This was never about him. It was about King Roy and the Family and Attania. As far as Jet was concerned, he had done his part by showing up.

Doll rolled over to look at him. “Do they even know you’re gone?”

“No. Maybe by now. I’ll deal with it later,” Jet said.

“This is a big deal, you know. Maybe you should go back. You’re Prince Roderick now. All of Attania is watching you.”

“Don’t remind me,” Jet muttered.

Something was happening on the tv screen. Smoke billowed out of the compound. The cameras came back to live shots of the building and angled upwards.

“What the hell?” Jet shot to his feet. “What are those things?”

Above the compound several small winged machines buzzed haphazardly in the air, dropping pellets which fell into the open courtyards, sending up plumes of black smoke wherever they hit. A few of them hit outside the compound also, where teams of news crews scrambled to get out of the way while continuing to film the events as they occurred. The pellets emitted a burst of white light as they exploded on the ground.

“I’ve got to get back!” Jet moved towards the windows.

“Look!” Doll pointed at the screen.

From inside the compound rose a great whirlwind which sucked down one of the winged machines that happened to fly into its path. The King’s doing. But the King was only one man.

“They may need me,” Jet said. “Stay here. Don’t open your door to anyone. I’ll find you when it’s over.” He walked swiftly back and gave Doll a fierce kiss.

Downtown Darcy was still mainly quiet, most of its citizens glued to their television sets. As Jet approached the green woods that marked the compound, he saw more of the buzzing things in the sky. They must have pinpointed the compound’s exact location by watching the news coverage. But Jet had never heard of flying machines. Nobody except Family should have been able to approach the compound from the air, and even Family had to know just where they were going, because it was hidden from the air as well.

The King’s whirlwind continued to scream overhead and smoke continued to pour out of the building. Jet rode the whirlwind down.

The King stood in the center of the Queen’s courtyard. Her beautiful garden was in shambles from the wind and falling debris. Blood streamed down the King’s face and arms and his dark hair waved wildly in the wind. He looked utterly exhausted.

“Where’s Merrell?” Jet shouted, taking form and running towards the King. He lifted his arms above his head and wove his own wind into the King’s.

“Roderick?” King Roy looked startled, but he gratefully relinquished control of the whirlwind. “Where did you come from?”

Jet jerked his head to the side. “Over there,” he said vaguely. His father sank to his knees, his face ashen. “I’ve got this. Go get Merrell!” Jet yelled to be heard above the roar of the wind.

King Roy staggered to his feet and made his way out of the courtyard.

One of the flying contraptions had been smashed onto the roof and hung precariously over the edge of the courtyard. Two others flitted in the sky, battling the fierce wind. Jet reached up black fingers of shadow and plucked one of the flying contraptions right out of the sky. He dragged it down to the already destroyed courtyard none too gently. The thing broke apart when it hit the ground. A man fell out.

Quickly Jet immobilized him with more shadow. At the same time he reached up with his other hand, dispersing the whirlwind as he did so. He tried for a second flying machine, managing to bring it down a little more gently this time.

That left one. It buzzed past the opening in the courtyard now that the whirlwind was no longer preventing it and dropped more of the exploding pellets. Jet caught them easily with wind and sent them right back at the flying machine. It disintegrated as several dozen tiny explosions tore through it, sending pieces of the wreckage showering down on Jet and the other two flying machines which now occupied the entire courtyard.

Jet stopped the pieces from hitting the ground by blasting them with light. He had a twinge of conscience when he realized there must have been a man in the broken up flying machine also, but he couldn’t worry about that now. The man would have perished when his own exploding pellets broke apart his machine.

Merrell skidded into the courtyard and stopped abruptly when he saw the two flying machines on the ground.

“Don’t worry,” Jet said wearily. “They can’t get out unless I let them.” He gestured towards the two machines, one in nearly perfect condition although the other, the first one Jet had brought down, was in two pieces. “What are those things?”

“Something that shouldn’t exist,” Merrell replied grimly. “Is that all of them?”

Jet nodded. “Plus that one. King Roy must have gotten it.”

Merrell viewed the broken machine which hung from the roof. With a flick of his wrist he sent a burst of flame to incinerate it completely.

“Hey! There was a person inside that thing. He might have still been alive!”

Merrell glared at Jet without replying. “Hold those two,” he said after a minute. “I’ve got to go speak to the press.”

Still? Jet couldn’t believe it. “Are the others all right?” he asked.

“Yes, no thanks to you. Where did you run off to?” Merrell didn’t wait for Jet’s reply, which was just as well.

Jet put a seal on the open courtyard roof much like the one he used to hide his treasures in his room, much like the ones used in the hidden libraries. He sealed the door, too, leaving the flying machines with their human riders locked inside.

Daniel had the younger children inside a protective bubble of shadow and was comforting Queen Sephira, who wept softly and held a reddened cloth to her forearm. King Roy sat with his head in his hands.

“Where were you?” Daniel said accusingly. “We could have used your help here.”

Jet was glad to see the younger kids were okay. Merrell had been right. The rebels had used this occasion to mount an attack on the royal Family, probably hoping to wipe them all out at once. Jet felt guilty for leaving. Daniel was right. He should have been here.

“It’s over now,” Jet said. “Merrell’s talking to the reporters outside.”

Daniel flipped on the television so they could watch what was happening. The news still showed the compound engulfed in smoke—old footage, as the smoke had been put out already—and shots of the strange flying contraptions. It abruptly cut off as the news team interrupted their coverage to show Merrell on the front steps of the compound.

“Turn it up” King Roy said.

Daniel increased the volume just as the cameras zoomed in on Merrell’s face. “. . . an acrobatic performance in honor of Prince Roderick . . .” Merrell was saying smoothly. No, it was all an illusion. The fliers were held up by wires . . . yes, the performance went terribly wrong and unfortunately the acrobats did not survive . . .only minor damage to the King’s mansion . . . the royal Family are all safe . . . it looked worse than it actually was . . . mostly smoke, which was supposed to be part of the act . . .entertainment only . . . It went on and on.

“Was that really what happened?” Daniel had finally let go of his protective bubble and 10 year old Ella asked the question. Jet glanced at the King, who nodded at his young daughter.

“Yes, that’s what happened. It was all an act. A terrible tragedy.”

Merrell popped his head into the room. “We all need to go outside. The King should make a statement, show the public that everyone is fine.”

But everyone wasn’t fine. The King was hurt; so was the Queen. It was pure luck that the royal children were unharmed. Or maybe Daniel deserved his grays after all. He had done what Jet wasn’t around to do. They all straightened out their clothes. The King wiped the blood from his face and echoed Jet’s thoughts. “It isn’t over.” He led his Family outside to face the news cameras.

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