The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 28

When Jet got back to the compound, Macek was already there talking to his prisoners. Queen Sephira invited Jet to take a late lunch with her, after exchanging a quick look with her husband, but Jet declined. He wasn’t hungry anyway, if she was really just offering lunch. He’d caught the look that the King and Queen had shared.

Macek had all sorts of papers spread out over the low table and on the floor. Ricky sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, as Macek talked animatedly about whatever was on those papers. Jet’s arrival scattered them all over the room. “Watch it,” Macek said gruffly, not even bothering to look up. He jabbed his finger onto one of the loose sheets of paper. “This marks the blasted area near the Eastern Sea. See these irregular spots? They’re caves. I think they could be entrances to subterranean tunnels. Are they?” He pinned Reg with an intense stare.

Jet leaned over for a closer look. “What’s that?” He pointed to a thin line which wove haphazardly around the edges of the paper, skirting the large empty space in the middle. “A road?”

“Very good,” Macek said sourly. “You can read a map.”

“Never heard of it,” Reg said off-handedly.

Macek snorted. “Right. And you’re from Ballind, too.”

“Near there,” Reg corrected softly, staring Macek in the eye.

“We will find your other bases. You could save yourself a lot of trouble if you just tell us now. Are the Sons of Men based in the blasted lands?”

“Now that would be impossible,” drawled Reg with a slow grin. “Nothing human could live out there. Your King made sure of that.”

Jet glanced at Macek in surprise. His father had been responsible for the blasted lands? But why?

As if Macek had heard his thoughts, Macek answered, “That is where the Sons of Men had their headquarters before. It stands to reason you’d try to regroup there again.”

“Except that the blasted lands are uninhabitable,” Ricky pointed out.

Macek let it go as they were just going round in circles. “You’d better hope the Enforcer found something,” he said as a parting shot. “Your days are numbered as it is.” He pulled Jet aside. “I need to talk to you. About what you did.”

“You mean this?” Jet let himself become fire.

Macek blanched, his eyes darting to their two prisoners, who watched the show with wary interest. “They know?”

Jet took back his human essence and answered. “I saw no reason to hide it. I’m done hiding. Merrell tells me not to tell the King. The King tells me not to tell Merrell. What am I supposed to think?”

“You’re a pawn.” Reg spoke quietly from his cot, earning an angry glance from Macek. “They want to use you to further their own ends. But you’re not so easily used, are you, Jet?”

Jet smiled at the use of his nickname and shook his head. He didn’t want to be used, but it might already be too late. Merrell had given him a place to belong. King Roy had given him an identity. Now that he knew, how could he walk away from it all?

Macek scowled. “That’s not what I meant,” he said, pulling Jet further into the shadows. He gestured, creating a solid wall out of shadow to screen them from the other two. It didn’t block sound, however, although Macek lowered his voice. “Mattie,” he began. “He can do that to his hands. He doesn’t just call flame to them, his hands are flame, Jet. What did you do to him?”

Jet raised his eyebrows. “He can? Well, that’s interesting.” He vanished Macek’s shadow wall since Reg and Ricky had heard every word anyway. “What about you? Can you do it too?”

“Of course not!” Macek said hotly. “It should be impossible. I don’t understand how Mattie can do it. The other boys are envious. They want to be able to turn into flame, too.”

“But so far it’s just Mattie?” Jet had an idea on why it might be so. Mattie had only just come into his elemental powers. He had entered Arden at the same time as Jet. At six years old, he was powerful as only a royal child could be, yet he hadn’t yet developed the preconceptions that the other royals all exhibited. He didn’t know he couldn’t turn into flame, basically. Once he saw Jet do it, he just copied him.

Jet sat down heavily next to Ricky, who startled but didn’t back away. An improvement. It had just occurred to Jet that he had been right around Mattie’s age, maybe a year or so younger, when he had run away into the subway. He hadn’t known he had elemental abilities, really. Oh, he had made water dance and fashioned toys out of shadow, but he had thought all kids could do that. It was natural. Shortly after he had entered the subway, he found himself alone and scared. He just used what came naturally to protect himself. With sudden clarity, he recalled fingers of wind reaching for him through the bars of an inescapable tunnel, and he had reached back, becoming wind so that he could cross through to the other side. Was that all there was to it?

“What is it?” Macek asked, when Jet remained silent for too long.

Jet laughed, mostly at himself. “I’ve been looking at this all wrong,” he said. He had not inherited his unusual abilities from either his mother or his father. In fact, his abilities might not be as unusual as everyone thought.

Reg and Ricky followed the conversation avidly. It seemed their Family captors had momentarily forgotten them. But Jet did not elaborate. Instead, he stood up to leave. He wanted to take another look at the book King Roy had let him take from the secret library.

Macek snapped his fingers and all his papers obediently lined up and formed themselves into a neat pile, which he then picked up. Neat trick, Jet thought. He’d have to remember that one.

Jet caught a slight motion at the end of the hallway. His lips curved upwards in amusement. Well, well. As they left the prisoners, a darker shadow detached itself from the wall. Jet pretended not to notice. Daniel followed at a distance, his face puckered in concentration as he sifted through what he’d seen and heard. He slid into the dining room ahead of the two cousins and busied himself at the sideboard. Since the incident with the fliers, Daniel had not gone back to Arden and had no immediate plans to do so. Grinning widely, he asked, “Did you make any progress?”

Macek ignored Daniel and Jet just shrugged. Queen Sephira swept into the room and headed straight for Daniel until she noticed Jet and Macek. She changed her course and linked arms with Jet. “Come have dinner with me,” she purred. “You must be hungry since you forewent lunch.”

Daniel’s eyes hardened, but he turned away and continued piling food onto his plate. Jet shook his head. “I have other plans,” he told the Queen.

Queen Sephira stiffly withdrew her hand from Jet’s arm. “Do your ‘other plans’ involve that common Family girl, Doll?” She walked to the other end of the dining table and whirled to face him. “Then you might as well stay and eat, because she won’t be joining us.” She made a point of looking at the clock on the wall. “By now I trust she’s half-way back to Low City. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Jet. It wasn’t my doing.” But the Queen smiled with satisfaction. “It seems she was expelled from her school and sent home for breaking the rules. Won’t her parents be proud?”

“And how would you know?” Jet asked softly, much too softly. But Queen Sephira didn’t take the hint, not even when the lights in the dining room flickered. Jet clenched his fists, tempted to discorporate right then and there to follow after Doll. He stared at the Queen, waiting for an answer.

“Thomas told me,” she said with a quick little smile.

The lights in the dining room went out and stayed out.

“Jet.” Macek’s voice penetrated the heavy dark. “Wait.”

But there was no answer.

“What did you expect?” Daniel’s voice. “Sephira, forget about him. He’s got his head screwed on backwards. Here.” Daniel cupped a small globe of light in his hands which grew steadily brighter as he pulled what little light there was from the hallway into the darkened room. He guided Sephira to her seat as Macek also conjured a globe of light. Jet stood just where he had been, his dark eyes black with fury. When Daniel spotted him, he flinched.

Jet pivoted on his heel and walked out of the dining room, becoming wind as he rounded the corner. Maybe Doll hadn’t left yet; maybe he could catch her, stop her. If his Family didn’t accept Doll, then he had no desire to stay with them. All these thoughts flew through his mind in an instant, much less time than it took him to reach Doll’s apartment, even as wind. He oozed inside and solidified, but Doll was not there. Her things were gone, except for a few books she’d left piled on her small desk. Jet rifled through them quickly, unsurprised to see that they were all books on the history of the Family. In the bottom one he found a torn piece of paper addressed to him:

Jet, I’m sorry I let you down. You were right; I should have stayed with you today. But we both know what happened. I’m worried for my own family. If your uncle could do this to me so easily, what will he do to my parents? Please don’t follow me. I’ll be all right as long as I do what they want. After I make sure my parents are unharmed, I’ll write to you. We’ll be together again, Jet, I know it. Right now those two non-family boys have no one else as their advocate but you. Do what you can for them. Don’t worry about me. I love you. Doll

Jet crumpled up the paper, thought better of it, and let it turn to ash on his palm. How could she ask him to forget her? Doll was sweet, and Jet had always felt an attraction towards her which he knew was reciprocated. But since he’d come to Arden, Doll had become more than that to him. She was stability, she was home. He didn’t want to imagine being without her. And they had never even had sex! Laughing bitterly to himself, Jet gathered up the books she had left him. Doll was right. She usually was when she wasn’t being overly cautious.

Fine. Jet would give Doll time to make sure her parents were okay. But then he was coming after her, and when he caught up to her again, they were having sex—and then they were going to spend the rest of their lives together. She was right about Reg and Ricky, though. Jet couldn’t just leave them here to die at the end of five days, of which he only had three left. Merrell would be expecting him to try something on the fifth day. Therefore, Jet needed to act sooner than that.

He needed to check the book in his bedroom at Arden first.

Depositing Doll’s books on his bed, he waved his hand to reveal his own bookshelf and took down the one King Roy had shown him. His stomach growled; he had missed supper in Darcy and at Arden. Rolling over, he reached for his abandoned clothes from the last few days which were piled up on the floor next to his bed. He dug through pockets until he had a handful of small treats—rolls, candies, fruit, and even a smashed, but still tasty, piece of cake. He stuffed the cake into his mouth, licking crumbs off the wrapper, and put some of the other food into the pockets of the pants he was currently wearing for later. Then he spent the next several hours reading about the origins of the Family.

Doll’s school books were less informative than the one from the secret library, but even that information was informative in a different manner. Her books never mentioned that Family were anything other than corporate, mortal beings, although they did hint that Family and non-family were inherently different, so much so that cross-breeding was impossible. The other book stopped at the point where Family had become mortal. It read like fantasy, and at times Jet wondered if perhaps that was exactly what it was: a storybook written for Family enjoyment. But too many pieces too closely mirrored his own abilities.

What was missing between the two sources was how Family had become the way they were now. If Jet was to believe Family originated as pure elements and somehow obtained the ability to put on human form, how did they get to the point where they were born and died? Because Jet was most certainly born, not formed, and so was every other Family who lived today. What had happened in between?

Jet left Doll’s books on his bed and took the one King Roy had given him over to Macek’s quarters. Tommy met him at the door as if he were a long-lost friend. Macek, as usual, was sitting behind his small desk in the sitting area, working on yet another set of papers. Jet tossed him the book. “Here, you said you wanted to borrow this.”

“Jet, Jet!” Tommy pulled on his sleeve. “I want to do what Mattie can do! Will you show me again?”

Macek, already perusing the book, rolled his eyes. But he took some of his attention away from the book in favor of watching Jet’s reaction.

Jet took a hard candy out of his pocket and laid it on the table. He surrounded it with a cage of shadow, cages being on his mind lately. The spaces between the bars were too small for Tommy to fit his hands through. “Get the candy,” he told the boy.

Tommy tried in the usual way. “I can’t,” he said after a few minutes.

Jet grinned. “You have to really want it. Keep trying.”

They had attracted an audience. Charlie, back from the compound, Mattie, and even Lorra crowded around the shadow cage with its sweet treat inside. Macek abandoned the book and came forward to block the box from Lorra’s view, frowning at Jet as he did so. Lorra was not one of the few who was privy to Jet’s secret. Jet smiled blandly back, not caring if she saw or not.

“I can do it!” Mattie reached fiery hands through the bars and touched the candy, melting it slightly. He triumphantly held it up in his now-solid hands.

Laughing, Jet took back the candy and replaced it inside the shadow cage. “Let the others give it a try.” So far, he had only showed them fire. How long would it take them, and Mattie in particular, to figure out they could do it with the other elements also?

Lorra kept craning her head to see past Macek. “What is he doing?” She pushed past Macek and stalked over to the shadow box. “I don’t see what’s so hard about this.” Macek gave Jet a desperate look. She plunged her hand towards the candy in the center of the shadow box and the shadows disintegrated at her touch. “See?” She held up the piece of candy. Jet winked at the boys, and set the box back to inpenetrable. Lorra left shortly after, feeling superior because her ability with shadow was that much more advanced than the beginner’s were. The boys continued to try to change their hands into fire in order to pass through the bars. That should keep them occupied for a while.

“I’m sorry about Doll,” Macek murmured. “But you know—“

Jet cut him off. “If you’re going to tell me it’s for the best, don’t. Has Merrell come back yet?”

“No. He followed the lead the prisoners gave us, even though he didn’t believe they were telling the truth. There are other towns out that way, towns that are not Family towns. His enforcers swept through those towns and arrested about twenty suspected troublemakers. If he doesn’t find any real information when he’s through interrogating them, he will be back for the prisoners. We need to get some solid information from them before then.”

Jet thought so too, just not in the same way Macek was thinking. Merrell would be back in a few days. That didn’t give him much time. He left Macek’s rooms, avoiding Lorra where she lurked in the common area hoping to run into him, and returned to his own rooms. He didn’t stay there long, becoming wind for ease of motion as he traveled down the mountain towards Darcy one last time.

Appearing inside the darkened prison cell, Jet called up a small globe of light. “Wake up,” he whispered, shaking first one cot and then the other. “We’re leaving.”

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