The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 27

Immediately the next morning Merrell and his enforcers left for parts unknown. Ballind, Jet thought darkly.

Jet cornered Daniel as he was having breakfast. “Why did you destroy the fliers?”

Daniel looked at Jet in mock surprise. “Uncle T told me to. He put me in charge. Why should you get all the fun?” He scowled. “I had a chance to look at them first.”

“So?” Jet asked. “What did you find out?”

Daniel leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. “They used motors, like a car, which spun blades in the air to keep them up, and used their body movements to change direction. Simple, really. I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before now.”

Except they had. More than once. And Merrell or someone like Merrell had quashed it every time. Jet saw the realization dawn in Daniel’s eyes, only to be replaced by anger moments later.

“Uncle T said destroy them, so I destroyed them. Those things attacked us, Jet!”

Who was he trying to convince? “Yeah,” Jet said. “Those machines did.”

“You got the prisoners, Jet. Why are you so concerned about their flying machines?”

Jet shrugged. “Never mind. I just thought it was interesting, that’s all.” Jet picked up some fruit for Doll and while he thought of it, pocketed some extra for Reg and Ricky, too.

Macek had returned to Arden with Charles and the other royals. Jet hadn’t had a chance to ask him how his session with their shared prisoners had gone, but if Merrell’s sudden departure was any indication, Merrell certainly had. Jet wanted to check on the prisoners to find out exactly what they’d told Macek. If they ended up getting an innocent town slaughtered, Jet would kill them himself and save Merrell the trouble!

“Morning,” he said to Doll, tossing her an apple. She was fully-dressed and sitting at a small table in the bedroom they had appropriated.

“Morning,” she said. “Jet, I have to go back to my apartment. I have no clothes here. I need to clean up. I’m missing classes, I—“ she stopped. Classes weren’t the important thing here.

“I can get your things,” Jet offered, although he already knew she wouldn’t accept. Doll was probably right. He shouldn’t have dragged her into this mess.

“Jet.” She came to him and put her hands on either side of his face. “I’ll be all right. You can come for me tonight if you want. I’ll pack a bag.”

Jet grinned. “Really?”

Doll nodded and kissed his nose like he had kissed hers last night. “Just let me take care of a few things.”

He brought her back his way, without bothering to order a car to take them. The less the enforcers knew about his comings and goings, the better.

King Roy and Queen Sephira remained at the mansion, putting on a public face for the masses. The incident at the mansion was downplayed as a publicity stunt, and since Family controlled the media, and the King was head of the Family, the television stations downplayed it as well. Jet wondered what the common people, Family and non-family alike, in places like Low City really thought of the incident. Macek had heard that not everyone believed the official report about the fliers.

Jet’s prisoners were still sleeping when he went down to check on them. Two plates of food sat on a low table by the door. At least they were being fed. Jet pulled out the two apples he’d saved and placed one on each plate.

Macek must have kept them up half the night. Jet nudged Ricky with his toe. The kid sat right up but he didn’t seem as terrified of Jet as before. Maybe he was getting used to being questioned by Family. “What do you people want with us? Why didn’t you just kill us and be done with it?” He rolled back and faced the wall. “Or at least let us sleep.”

From the other side of the room, Reg chuckled wearily. “It’s a technique, Ric,” he said. “They want us to talk. He told us to, remember?” Reg pointed at Jet.

Jet sat down cross-legged in the middle of the room. “I told you to lie,” he reminded Reg. “Did you? About Ballind? Because the Enforcer is probably on his way there right now.”

Reg sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I’ve never even been there,” he admitted. “What will he do?”

Ricky answered. “He won’t do anything to them. Ballind is a Family town.”

Jet remembered the look of fear on a Family shopkeeper’s face when he walked into her store in Salter wearing his gray uniform. Salter had been a Family town, too. Ricky might just be wrong in his assumptions. “What else did you tell Macek?”

“He asked how we flew our crafts. I told him magic,” Ricky said derisively. “He didn’t like that answer.”

No, Macek wouldn’t. “Did he tell you your crafts have been destroyed?”

“Good.” Reg heaved himself up to a sitting position and investigated the breakfast that had been left for them. He sniffed at the plate of food and finally chose the apple. “You were never supposed to capture one of them anyway.”

The unspoken thought hung between them. How had Jet managed to pluck the aircraft right out of the sky without destroying them?

“Was it fun driving them?” Jet asked, thinking of Daniel’s report that they had motors like cars.

Ricky would have answered yes. It was clear on his face. But Reg glanced at him. It was enough to keep him silent. Jet revised his estimation of Reg. He wasn’t just a kid who was light enough to operate a flying machine. Jet had lucked out. Reg was somebody. It remained to be seen who.

“What about the Sons of Men?” Jet asked. “Macek knew what that meant. What did you tell him about it?”

Ricky eyed Jet suspiciously. “Why are you asking us instead of asking him? Aren’t you both on the same side?”

Jet shrugged. “I don’t know what the sides are, so I can’t answer that,” he said truthfully.

Ricky snorted. “You’re Family, aren’t you? Of course you are—long lost Roderick Estee, the next King of Attania. You’re the enemy!”

“Ricard,” Reg cautioned.

"Reginald.” Ricky answered.

“Why am I the enemy?”

Reg took the other apple off Ricky’s plate and bit into it. “You said it yourself. You’re an Elemental. Humans and Elementals don’t belong in the same world. You Family play at being human beings but all you do are take what’s rightfully ours—the true human beings of Attania.”

“By whose right?” Jet asked softly.

“By ours—the Sons of Men!” Ricky proclaimed.

Jet shook his head. “Where do you really come from? Were there any Family in your town? If there were, you’d know they are not much different from you. I came from Low City. I didn’t know I was Family for a long time.”

“I’ve been to Low City,” Ricky muttered. “Family all live on the good side of the river. Non-family—humans,” he stressed, “live on the wrong side. The side that got burned to the ground once by Family.”

Jet’s lips tightened. “Because of me,” he admitted. “Where do you think I lived all these years?”

Ricky’s eyes widened. “I don’t believe it.”

Reg said, “Ric, he’s telling the truth.”

Ricky quieted down enough to investigate his own breakfast. His forehead wrinkled. “It’s not poisoned, is it?”

Jet answered by taking a piece of bread off Ricky’s plate and stuffing it into his mouth. “Not poisoned,” he mumbled around the crumbs. “At least, not to me. Even if I am Family, I’m not like the rest of them. If the Family were ever Elementals, they’re not anymore.” He tilted his head and regarded Ricky with a faint challenging grin. “Or you wouldn’t be able to kill them.”

Ricky stared at Jet in confusion, but Reg’s brows drew together as he pondered Jet’s seemingly offhand remark. “But not you,” he said slowly.

“You could try.”

Reg smiled. “If circumstances were different, I could get to like you.”

Ricky had no real idea who the Sons of Men were, even though he called himself one of them. Reg, on the other hand, knew more than he was telling. Jet was glad he’d made the effort to save him.

“We call you Elementals,” Reg said suddenly, coming to some sort of a decision, “because you can control the elements. Normal people can’t. Therefore, you have an unfair advantage over us. What you are is probably closer to the original meaning of the term. The question is, why are you an Elemental? Why you? Who else among the Family has true mastery over the elements?”

Jet’s lips quirked. “I thought I was asking the questions,” he said. “Why’d you try to kill me?”

“We tried to kill Prince Roderick,” Reg replied. “We didn’t know you—or what you can do. Although now that you’ve shown us your true nature, you’re a bigger threat than the rest of the Family combined.”

“Then my earlier question still stands: What would you do with the knowledge if you could go back to your Sons of Men?”

“I’d tell them we were right all along,” Ricky said quickly. “You’re not human. You don’t belong here.”

“I have to disagree with you,” Jet said. “Not about the human part. I really can’t say. But about belonging.” Although Jet wondered. Ricky was talking about Family in general, but Jet didn’t quite fit in there either. He’d always had trouble belonging. “We’ll just have to see then, won’t we?” he said brightly.

Jet left the two prisoners shortly after that, and made his way to find King Roy, since Merrell was still not back from his punitive mission. “I want to see my mother,” Jet said.

Startled, King Roy replied, “Sephira? She’s in her garden.”

“Not Sephira. My real mother. Merrell told me I could visit her if I wanted to. I want to.”

“Elen? But she’s—“ The King hesitated. “She’s not right. Why do you want to see her?”

Jet spread his arms wide. “You’ve seen what I am. If I didn’t get it from you, maybe I got it from my mother. I need to at least ask her.”

King Roy shook his head regretfully. “I don’t think you’ll find your answers there, Roddy. But you can try.”

The King’s car brought them to a modest brick building not far outside of Darcy. It looked like a hospital, but smaller. King Roy told him only his mother and the staff that took care of her, including several enforcers, lived here. She was well-guarded, but was it from outside dangers or from herself?

The woman Jet met bore little resemblance to the self-assured, self-centered woman he remembered from his childhood. A sudden recollection of her last disagreement with Janna surfaced in Jet’s thoughts. It was what had started everything and made little Roddy decide to run away.

Elen Estee was a shell of her former self. She sat hunched in an overstuffed chair, still thin but not as tall as Jet remembered, but then again, his were a child’s memories. Her hair was cut short to her neck and hung lankly around her pinched face. When she looked up at Jet her eyes were vacant.

King Roy had not come in with Jet, admitting that Elen made him uncomfortable. He had barely known her when they made a child—Roderick—together. She was his official wife in Low City, but even back then she was only one of many, because the King had to perform his duty to beget as many royal children with different bloodlines as possible.

“So you never loved her?” Jet had asked.

“Kings don’t have that luxury,” his father replied, a pointed reminder that Jet should not be involved with Doll.

Alone, Jet entered the darkened room where his mother spent most of her days. After young Prince Roderick was kidnapped and presumed dead, King Roy had set her aside and removed her from the official residence in Low City. She had lost her wits then, or maybe she’d lost them after years of being under house arrest in this isolated facility. Jet felt somewhat responsible, since he hadn’t, after all, been kidnapped. But he blamed King Roy more.

“Mother?” he said softly, kneeling down in front of her chair. “It’s me, Roderick. Roddy.”

Slowly her eyes focused and she flicked a glance at him and away. “Roddy’s dead,” she said.

“No, I’m not, Mother,” Jet replied. “I was lost but I’ve come back.” He took her hand and placed it on his cheek, cradling it with his own. It felt limp, lifeless. “I lived with you and Janna in a big house in Low City. You called me Roddy. I’m Roddy, Mother.”

“Roddy?” Elen Estee’s hand tightened. She leaned forward and placed her other hand on Jet’s face too. “Is it really you? No, no.” She pulled both her hands away and twisted them together on her lap. “Janna took you. Janna killed you!” Her voice turned vicious. “My baby, my only hope to get out of that wretched city. And she shattered it when she took my son!” Her eyes sought Jet’s again. “You were so precocious,” she said, jumping back and forth from denying his existence to speaking as if she believed Jet was her lost son. “Talented. I knew when Roy saw you he’d recognize your potential, and take us both to the capital. But she ruined it! I’m glad she’s dead! But you’re dead too, aren’t you, Roddy?”

Jet realized she was not completely sane, but he had to try to get her to focus. “Mother, what do you mean I was talented?” He wanted to ask her about Janna, but this was more important. “Talented how?”

Elen’s eyes turned dreamy. “My Roddy controlled wind and shadow, light and water almost from the time he could walk. That Janny thought I didn’t know. She tried to hide it from me because she wanted Roddy all to herself, but I knew! I saw them when she gave him his bath—water swirling around the room like little birds. She took him, she took Roddy so she could have him all to herself!”

Blinking in the semi-darkness, Jet tried to remember. Had Janny hidden his elemental talents? But why? From what his mother was saying, they were the same elemental talents as many of the royal children exhibited, although he knew now that they usually didn’t manifest until age five or six. Was it because Janny knew that if Jet’s talents were discovered, he would be sent away? Perhaps she had hidden his abilities because she loved him? But it still didn’t answer his main question. “Mother, could I become my elements? Could you?”

“Eh?” Elen peered at him curiously. “Who are you?”

Jet saw no other way than to show her. Perhaps it would jar something in her brain. He let himself turn to flame and moved to embrace her, needing to see the core of her, needing to know if she was like him. She was cool at her center, shadow and water both. There was fire and light and wind in there, too. She controlled many elements, almost as many as the King himself. They sat banked within the heart of her. Jet’s fire kindled her own, and she began to scream, a long, loud wail of terror that brought her enforcers running.

Jet quickly withdrew, solidifying an instant before the enforcers arrived. His mother continued to scream, folding her arms and drawing up her legs to make herself as small as possible. “Mother!” Jet said. But all she did was scream and scream.

King Roy came to lead Jet away. “She gets like this sometimes,” he said in explanation. “I tried to tell you.”

Jet swallowed, glancing back to see the enforcers surrounding his mother, straightening out her arms and legs and arranging her more comfortably in her big chair. She was still screaming. “I’ll come to see you again,” he whispered. He owed her that.

But it meant he was no farther ahead in discovering why he alone was able to relinquish his physical form and actually become his elements.


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