Merrell paraded them all in front of the news crews but drew the line at further interviews. His enforcers worked to get everyone off the premises in an orderly fashion so that Merrell could establish the shields that would once again hide the royal compound from plain sight. A lot of good it did him earlier.
Jet nearly broke away from the royal Family when he spied a familiar face in the sea of news reporters. He had told Doll to stay in her room where it was safe! How had she managed to get into the compound anyway? Granted, the enforcers had been distracted, but that was really no excuse! Doll was neither a reporter nor an invited guest. He stopped himself from going to her when he caught her watching him anxiously. He would only make things worse. Forcing himself to pretend that nothing was amiss, Jet submitted to yet more photos, smiling stiffly when asked. Doll shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t safe. What if more of those flying things appeared?
Jet was so worried he unconsciously sent a pulse of air out across the compound, ruffling hair as it passed over the guests before it settled like an unseen weight around the perimeter of the King’s compound.
“Jet.” Merrell spoke quietly, aware that the cameras were still rolling. “Let it go. Nobody will be able to get out otherwise.”
“What?” Startled, Jet glanced at Merrell. He was staring straight at Doll. So much for not drawing attention to her. “Oh.” He realized he had inadvertently created a barrier around the compound to protect Doll from harm. He hadn’t known he could do that, although it was somewhat similar to what Daniel had created to protect the royal children. With a thought, he released his barrier.
“That’s all for today.” Merrell said firmly. The King and Queen, followed by their royal children, retreated to the mansion while Merrell’s enforcers finished showing everyone else the way out. Everyone except one. Merrell gestured, and an enforcer took Doll by the elbow, murmuring softly in her ear. Jet stiffened, ready to intervene, but Merrell touched his arm. “She will be safe. Go with the others.” With a last look at Doll, Jet complied.
He sneaked away at the first chance he got, invisibly following the trail of enforcers until he found where Merrell had put Doll. She sat in a windowless room, hands clasped in her lap, her eyes wide with apprehension. Jet slipped through the door and knelt in front of her. He hadn’t much time before he would be missed. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?” he murmured, taking her folded hands in his.
Doll shook her head.
“Why did you follow me?” Jet asked in frustration. She had been safe in her own apartment. “How did you even get in?”
“Yes, how did you manage to slip by my enforcers when your only talent is fire?” Merrell quietly shut the door behind him, startling both Jet and Doll. Jet wondered briefly how Merrell had known what Doll’s elemental talent was, but of course he would know. He’d probably had her thoroughly investigated.
Doll paled when the Enforcer walked into the room. “I—I don’t know,” she whispered, pulling her hands out of Jet’s. “I was worried about Jet. I didn’t really think about it—I just came.”
The door opened again and Queen Sephira stepped inside. Her mouth tightened when she saw the young Family girl sitting quietly with Jet at her feet. “Who is this?” she said coldly.
“Jet’s—friend,” Merrell replied.
Doll quickly rose to her feet and made a little bow. “Queen Sephira. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Yes, well it seems as if you’ve met quite a lot of us already.” The Queen walked over to Jet and put an arm solicitously around his shoulders, drawing him to his feet. “Roderick, you are wanted elsewhere.”
Jet glanced uncertainly at Merrell, who said, “Go with Sephira. I’ll see to it that Doll is escorted safely home.”
“Doll?” Queen Sephira raised her perfect eyebrows and looked Doll up and down. “How quaint.” With that, she walked out of the room, pulling Jet with her. He looked helplessly back at Doll, but followed the Queen. He trusted Merrell to keep Doll safe.
Queen Sephira linked arms with Jet. “She’s quite plain,” she commented lightly. “You shouldn’t encourage her.”
Jet had no idea how to respond to that. Doll wasn’t plain. She wasn’t beautiful like Queen Sephira or voluptuous like Lorra, but she had the same dark, glossy hair, pale skin and wide eyes as the rest of the Family. Jet thought she was cute. But somehow he didn’t think Queen Sephira wanted to hear that. Merrell was protecting Doll from more than possible rebel attacks, and for that Jet was grateful.
Daniel rounded on Jet as soon as he rejoined the rest of the royal Family. They were all indoors away from any windows or open courtyards. “Why do you keep disappearing?” he asked petulantly.
Queen Sephira smiled and slid her arm free of Jet’s to link with Daniel instead. Across the room, the King watched silently. “His little girlfriend came to visit him.”
“Doll? She’s here? No wonder you disappeared! I won’t even ask how you got her into the compound.” Daniel’s admiring grin faded. “You still shouldn’t have left the rest of us to fight off the rebels.”
Jet opened his mouth and closed it. Daniel thought he had sneaked Doll into the compound. He also thought Jet hadn’t helped quell the attack. He must not have realized it was Jet who had subdued the rebels and not King Roy.
The King stared at Jet also, as if waiting to hear what he had to say. If King Roy hadn’t mentioned Jet’s involvement, then maybe Jet shouldn’t either, at least not until after he’d had a chance to talk to Merrell about it.
“What about the prisoners?” Jet asked instead.
King Roy’s eyes flew to Jet’s. There was surprise there, and a certain amount of speculation, but mostly panic. King Roy hadn’t known there were any survivors, and he didn’t want the others to know he didn’t know, or they would realize it hadn’t been the King who had saved them. All right. Jet could give him this much.
“Merrell told me there were some prisoners,” Jet said.
King Roy squared his shoulders and came to his feet. “I need to confer with Thomas first. Roderick, you may accompany me as you wear the grays.” He hesitated. “You too, Daniel.”
They left the others. There would be no traveling back to Arden today, not until Merrell gave the all clear. The King’s compound, even though it had been successfully breached, was still the safest place for the royal Family.
The Queen’s garden was just as Jet had left it. He waved a hand so the King, Merrell and Daniel could enter. Daniel didn’t notice, but the King did, and he stared hard at Jet as he brushed by.
Daniel whistled when he saw the fallen fliers. “How did they stay in the air?” he asked, moving closer for a better look. The unbroken one lay on its side, its narrow wings crumpled beneath it. “It looks like a dragonfly.”
It did look like a bloated insect, though the wings weren’t exactly right. Jet wondered how it could stay in the air too without the air’s cooperation. As far as he knew, no non-family could manipulate air.
“Where’s the prisoner?”
Again, Jet made a tiny gesture, and the shadows that bound both prisoners disappeared. One of them, the one from the broken machine, was in bad shape. He was young, too, as young as Jet or Daniel, maybe even younger. His breath came in shallow pants and his eyes had already clouded over in pain as he stared fixedly in front of him. He didn’t even react to the sight of four Family appearing suddenly in front of him. Jet thought he was beyond seeing at this point. He knelt down and tried to lift the young man’s head.
“Don’t touch him!” From across the courtyard came the tortured cry of the other flying machine operator. Jet stopped, turning his head to look. The other man was young also, and thin. Perhaps they had to be to keep those machines in the air. His sandy brown hair reminded Jet of Ben. The young man heaved himself out of his flier and staggered across the debris-strewn courtyard towards Jet and the other operator who struggled for breath at Jet’s feet. He threw his body protectively across that of his friend and glared up at Jet. “Leave him to die in peace!”
Merrell stepped forward holding a ball of fire in his palm. “Who are you?” he demanded.
The non-family man ignored Merrell and his threat. So did Jet. He calmly squeezed his fist, garnering drops of water which he let trickle into the unresponsive man’s slack mouth. The man choked and his eyes fluttered open. He whispered something. Jet leaned down to hear better, giving the injured prisoner a little more water first. “Sons of Men,” the prisoner croaked out. “We are the Sons of Men.”
His friend shook him, glaring at Jet. “Shut up, Reg! Don’t tell these creatures anything!”
“Creatures!” Daniel burst out.
Merrell let his fireball dissipate. “Sons of Men,” he repeated thoughtfully. “I thought that movement had died out centuries ago.”
“Shows how much you know!” The uninjured prisoner spat. He pulled Reg away from Jet, and as he did so, a great red patch smeared across the ground from Reg’s side.
“He’s bleeding.” Jet moved forward to help, and the prisoner hissed, “Stay away!”
“He’ll die,” Jet said reasonably, continuing to move forward.
“He’ll die anyway. Might as well be now before you have a chance to torture him!” The prisoner’s eyes widened as he realized that he would most likely be tortured then.”
“I agree.” King Roy, who had been silent until now, spoke up. “Let the non-family boy die. We have the other one. We don’t need them both.”
Daniel’s eyes were as wide as the prisoner’s. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Whatever we have to.” Merrell’s stock answer. Jet had heard enough. “No one should have to suffer needlessly. He’s in pain. We can’t just kill him.”
“Yes, we can,” Merrell said implacably. “He was trying to kill you, us, as many people as he could. He deserves to die.”
“You’re not people!” The uninjured boy shouted. “You’re—things!”
That was just nonsense. Jet shouldered the boy aside. He was slight, and exhausted, and beneath his bravado very frightened. It wasn’t that hard. Jet didn’t even have to use wind. He knelt by Reg and stared at the wound in his side. With a blade of pure light that made the other prisoner scream in panic, Jet sliced away the remnants of the injured one’s shirt and laid bare the wound. It was ugly, a rip diagonally across his side. Acutely aware of who was watching, Jet laid his hands on the wound and then inside the wound, making only that small part of his body pure element. He did much as he had done with Doll and the younger cousins, except this non-family had no answering element inside himself to resonate with Jet’s.
Still, Jet managed to use heat to seal the wound, water to cleanse it, and air to speed the healing. When he withdrew his hands the bleeding had stopped and Reg’s color was looking better. Jet was surprised it had worked as well as it did, considering this was the first time he had actually tried healing anybody.
Horrified, the other prisoner gasped, “What did you do to him?”
By the looks on their faces, the King and Daniel were wondering the same thing. Merrell looked disgusted.
“Ricky, it’s all right, I’m okay.” Reg’s voice was weak but steady. He gave a shaky smile to his friend. “Now you don’t have to be tortured alone.”
Jet liked Reg. He had a sense of humor. “Who said anything about torture?” he asked, hoping to keep a light tone. “I have questions, lots of questions. Like what are those flying things you guys came in on? Why did you attack us?”
Merrell cut in. “Where are the rest of you? How widespread is this ‘Sons of Men’ movement? Who’s behind it? I have questions too.” His eyes gleamed darkly. “How did you find the King’s compound? Oh, yes. Many questions.” He turned his glare on Jet. “And you. What did you think to accomplish by prolonging that boy’s life? You may be a Prince now, but you still answer to me!”
“Another Prince!” Ricky shot out his rhetoric. “As if Attania needs more Princes! You want to know what we were sent to do? Our mission was to take out this new Prince Roderick at all costs. You think you’ve won? This is only the beginning! We are not alone in this. Prince Roderick’s days are numbered.”
Merrell calmly cuffed Ricky on the head. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “That’s what I wanted to know.” The boy slumped down, unconscious. Merrell could have bound him with shadow, or struck him senseless with a bolt of light, but he chose to be physical. The lesson was not lost on the other prisoner, Reg, who moved back, accidentally bumping into Jet.
“Roderick, these are your prisoners now, since you’re so eager to save them. See that they tell you what we need to know, or I will get the information my way.
Reg stared in dismay at Jet when he heard Merrell call him Roderick. “You’re him?” he whispered.
Jet shrugged. “’Fraid so,” he replied.