The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 29

“Huh?” Ricky sat up at Jet’s prodding. “Where are we going?”

“Shh!” Jet hissed. Although they rarely let themselves be seen, enforcers were everywhere in the King’s compound. Two were stationed in the hallway outside. “What do you care? Away.”

Reg quickly slid out of bed and motioned for Ricky to do the same. He raised an eyebrow at Jet, who grinned and threw shadow over the two of them. He could dematerialize, but they couldn’t. Getting them out was going to be tricky. Jet liked tricks.

He oozed out through the crack at the bottom of the door as a slight breeze, unnoticeable. He blended with the darker shadows, avoiding the two he knew to be enforcers hiding the way Daniel had believed himself hidden the day before. Working carefully, Jet fashioned a door of shadow directly in front of the actual door to the prison room. It was a good thing this was really just a spare storeroom in the basement of the King’s mansion. If it had been an actual prison cell like the one in Salter, Jet didn’t know if he’d be able to pull this particular trick off. He constructed the shadow door a few inches out from the real door, which he now opened.

‘Come on,’ he mouthed, not daring to use speech this close to the enforcers. Reg and Ricky were still wrapped in his shadows and blended in seamlessly with the shadows that comprised the false door. Jet led them upstairs past several more sets of enforcer guards. He wondered idly who they were. Enforcers were allowed to use their elemental abilities; they wore the grays like he did. Merrell had explained it to him once: enforcers were cousins of some sort, ones who did not end up serving in government for one of the cities of Attania. So they were powerful, but not as powerful as the Family who ruled. Or so Merrell would have him believe. Merrell was The Enforcer and only the King himself was more powerful, although that was debatable. Raw power, or the knowledge to use what power one did possess to its full advantage? Which, in the end, was better? Merrell had wanted Jet for an enforcer, even though he hadn’t come right out and said so. And both Merrell and Jet knew Jet was more powerful than just about any Family in existence right now. So what did that mean? Jet moved cautiously past a final set of enforcers. They were all Merrell’s men, not the King’s. Merrell’s own little private army.

Jet brought them to the Queen’s garden. It was still damaged, but the broken fliers and other debris had been cleared out, and Queen Sephira had been making an effort to salvage what she could of her plants. More importantly, it was still open to the night air. Jet dismissed his own shield which he had placed above the opening after the battle. The enforcers watched for enemies without, but it wouldn’t occur to them to guard the space from within. Jet called three clouds to him, and for good measure called in a layer of clouds to overlay all of Darcy, the beginnings of a rainstorm which would last well beyond morning—and cover their escape.

“Get on,” he instructed the two non-family boys, who looked at him like he had two heads. “Go on, you won’t fall through. Think of it as a Family flier.” Even as he spoke, Jet set thought to deed and shaped the tops of the clouds with shadow so they looked a little like their flying machines. Warily, first Reg and then Ricky climbed atop their respective clouds and clung to the false controls Jet had fashioned out of shadow. Jet hopped on his own cloud and sent all three up and out, high, higher than necessary but he didn’t want any enforcers remarking on clouds that moved unusually fast. Below them, rain had begun to fall, veiling them completely. Still, Jet knew this trick wouldn’t last long.

He steered them towards Darcy rather than away, letting the clouds dissipate as they landed in the dark depot behind the bus station. Reg and Ricky were shivering, wet from riding the clouds and wetter still from the rain which fell steadily now, turning the night sky uniformly gray and dismal. Jet dried all three of them with a snap of his fingers, startling a gasp out of Ricky. Even dry, their clothing was torn and stained with blood, especially Reg’s. He led them to Marty’s bus, parked for the night. Marty slept, snoring softly, in the first row of seats. “Wait right here,” Jet said, disappearing out the door. He hoped they listened, or it would be worse for all of them.

Jet grabbed clothes and food from the first store he came across, which necessitated his walking back to the bus depot so he could carry everything. He managed to do it without getting too soaked, and threw the bundles to the boys. “Get dressed. There’s some breakfast in there too.” Then he went to talk to Marty.

“Sorry, kid—er, Prince,” Marty said. “This bus isn’t going to Low City—I’m on the western loop this week—down to Warren with all stops in between.” He glanced in his rearview mirror at the two obviously non-family passengers who were busy changing clothes.

Jet caught the look. “Could you please forget about the Prince thing? Tonight I’m just Jet.” He slumped into the seat right in back of Marty. There went that plan. But maybe it was for the better. Low City was the first place Merrell would think to look for him. “What stops?” he asked. Maybe there was another option.

Marty cocked his head to the side. “Let’s see. Brimley, then Martinsville, West Barton, Amity, Frinnet, and then Warren. Then I start back up again and get back to Darcy by evening. It’s not as long a run as the one to Low City.”

“West Barton?” Jet had an idea. “That might work. Can you let us off in West Barton without telling anyone we were on your bus? It’s important. Prince stuff.” He winked at Marty.

“Sure, sure. For you, Jet, no problem. Bus leaves in an hour.”

Jet used the time to cloak the entire back row in shadow so it appeared that the final row of seats was the one before it. Then he slipped in across from the boys and held out his hand for their discarded clothes. He zapped the bundle so that it was a pile of ash. Ricky, who had experienced Jet’s drying trick earlier, blanched.

“What are we doing on a bus?” Reg whispered. “How is this going to save us?”

Jet wasn’t sure it would work either, but it was a better bet than continuing on using clouds. Reg and Ricky weren’t Family. The cold and damp from the clouds would harm them after a while. Jet had no illusions that the Enforcer wouldn’t figure out immediately that it was Jet who had taken the prisoners. He knew Jet’s capabilities and would be prepared for them. It was better to use mundane methods of travel, ones that the royal branch of Family, brought up with limousines and drivers, might not think about.

When Marty’s bus eventually rolled out of the depot, it was still raining although the sky was beginning to lighten. Only a few other passengers had boarded the bus for the 6 a.m. departure. The first stop, Brimley was only about 45 minutes outside of Darcy. Jet, watching through the window on his side, was surprised to see a few non-family passengers board. The same thing happened in the next town, and the next. More and more non-family boarded the bus. It was only in Darcy that there were so few non-family. Jet took down his shadow barrier, as there was no longer any point. Reg and Ricky fit right in with the majority of bus passengers now.

He beckoned for them to follow him when the bus stopped in West Barton. Reg looked at him in surprise. “Thanks, Marty,” he said, giving the bus driver’s arm a friendly squeeze as he got off the bus.

West Barton was a small town not far from Salter, but where Salter was primarily a Family town, West Barton was primarily non-family. Jet remembered where Pat Riven lived. He knocked on the door of the small, one-story house, startling the little girl who opened it and stared at him with wide blue eyes. With a jolt, Jet realized that he was the minority here. “We’re looking for Pat,” he told her, smiling politely.

It didn’t seem to put her at ease. “Patrick!” she yelled behind her, holding the door half-closed.

Pat and an older woman came to the door. Pat’s eyes widened when he saw Jet. “What are you doing here?” His eyes drifted to the two non-family boys behind Jet. “Who are they?”

“Friends,” Jet said shortly. “Can we come in?”

Grudgingly, Pat widened the door, shooing his sister out of the way. “It’s all right, mom,” he said to the older woman. Pat led them to a small sitting area which was crowded with furniture. By the time all three of them sat down, there wasn’t anywhere else for Pat to sit. He perched on top of a low table after he swept the newspapers and magazines off to make room. “What do you want?”

Jet said, “These two are Sons of Men. I’m bringing them back to you.”

“Who?” asked Pat.

Ricky glared at Jet and Reg tightened his lips. Jet got the feeling that the Family might have been wrong about Pat all along. “Don’t you know who they are?”

“Why would I?” Pat answered sullenly. “What’s this all about? Why did you come here? I told you I don’t know anything. I don’t even hang out with those guys anymore.” He hung his head and mumbled. “They won’t let me.”

It hadn’t occurred to Jet that there might be more than just one organization with a grudge against the Family. He glanced at Reg, who seemed to be having some trouble holding his temper although Jet didn’t know why. Here was one of his own kind, with connections which might be able to help the two fliers. “Can you contact them—find out if they’ve heard of the Sons of Men?” he asked Pat.

“No.” Reg ground his teeth. “We are an underground group.” Ricky smirked at that. “None of these people would have heard of us. He’s no help. In fact,” Reg swiveled to look Jet in the eye. “you may have just made things worse. Maybe you should stop trying to help us.”

Jet remembered that the two fliers hadn’t thought they would return alive from their mission. The fact that they were still alive might jeopardize their organization. That put a whole different light on Jet’s rescue attempt. “Turn on the television,” he instructed Pat. He wanted to see if there was any mention of the prisoners’ escape, although he doubted it. Merrell had not wanted it known that the Family had captured any prisoners, had not wanted it known that there had been an attack at all, although there was speculation in the outlying cities. Everybody had seen footage of the fliers on television.

Pat’s tv was old and the picture was grainy. His whole house was old, small and cramped. It still wasn’t an excuse for what he and his friends had done in Salter. The Family there were not much better off than people in West Barton, but it explained why Pat, at least, had gone there looking for work. Salter was a self-sufficient farming community. West Barton was just poor. Jet was used to living in a big city. He supposed he had been one of the poor ones, although he never thought of himself that way. He’d had Ben to look out for him, and he had his own talents. Jet realized he really didn’t know a lot about Attania. Maybe after all this was over, he could travel the country and find out about these people who he supposedly would be in charge of one day—if Merrell ever forgave him for this little stunt. If he ever went back to being Prince Roderick Estee. He laughed to himself. He couldn’t very well join the Sons of Men, could he? Considering he wasn’t one.

The news station showed clips of Merrell’s enforcers from the day before. They had been very circumspect, not destroying much except for a few places where they arrested several people and carted them off to Darcy to be tried. There was nothing about last night or today. Jet let out his breath. Either they were covering up the search for him and the two prisoners, or they hadn’t realized they were missing yet.

The weather came on and Jet paid little attention as the announcer droned on about the unexpected rain in the middle of the country which had ended as suddenly as it began. The weatherman showed the map and Jet’s heart sped up. The rain had followed their bus route precisely, stopping pretty much in West Barton. How could he have been so foolish?

“Come on,” he said, jumping up. “We’ve got to get out of here. Now.”

Reg seemed to have followed Jet’s line of thinking. “Can we rent a car?” he asked Pat. “I know a place where we can go for a while. It’s not far from here but,” he glanced at Jet. “It’s in the opposite direction.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

Pat’s mother rented the car for them with money Jet gave her. Luckily, she didn’t ask too many questions about where he had gotten it from, which was just as well. They all assumed as Family he was rich, and he let them think that. The bank down the street wouldn’t notice the loss until the next time they reconciled their vault.

Pat wanted to come. Jet thought it was a good idea. Leaving him behind would just be putting him in danger. If Merrell thought Pat was involved, it would not go well for the teen. They drove all afternoon, heading south and east, instead of west, to a spot on Attania’s southern shore. Pat, who drove, pulled in where Reg directed him. The place was a dilapidated motel which must have been popular some years ago when this was a beach town, but now it was run-down and seemingly deserted. The beach across the street was eroded and bare. But, apparently it was a functioning motel. There was a vacancy sign hanging in the lobby window.

“Wait here,” Reg told the others. He went inside and came out a few minutes later. “We have room 202,” he said, holding up a key. No key cards here, Jet realized. The place was that old.

Reg switched on the television set in the room. Enforcers had hit West Barton. They showed footage of some of them walking around town questioning locals. Pat hissed as three young men were led out into a waiting truck. “Those are the guys who were with me in Salter,” he whispered, as if the television could hear him. Jet was very glad they’d brought Pat along with them. He stiffened as he recognized one of the enforcers. Not Merrell—Daniel. They’d sent Daniel after him.

“Now what?”

“Now we wait. I have some contacts who will find who we’re looking for.”

Jet looked at Reg. “And who are we looking for?”

“The leader of this area’s Sons of Men. I’ve heard he’s based around here somewhere. Don’t know what he’ll do with us.” Reg glanced at Pat, then at Jet. “If you’re going to leave, do it now.”

Jet grinned. “And miss all the fun?”

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