The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 30

Jet sat cross-legged on the middle of the motel bed and braided the top of his hair, using strings he pulled from the worn bedspread to tie them off. His hair wasn’t nearly as long as it had been the last time he’d worn it braided like this, but it was getting in his eyes. Pat and Ricky watched him curiously.

Reg wasn’t back yet. He had gone to meet with one of his contacts late that afternoon. The rest of them stayed in the cramped motel room, staring at the news channel on the small tv. There were reports of enforcers in all of the major cities, leading to rampant speculation on the part of the news channel that something was going on.

Jet hopped off the bed. “I’m going for a walk.”

“You can’t!” Ricky said in a panic. “Reg said to stay put!”

Jet gave him a look and reached for the door handle anyway. He could do whatever he wanted. The fact that he remained corporeal to do it was just his way of being polite.

“You’re Family, Jet. Somebody’s gonna notice,” Pat said in support of Ricky.

Jet wore Pat’s old clothes, a nondescript pair of faded brown trousers and a thick checkered work shirt. His grays would have been a dead giveaway. He supposed Pat did have a point, though. “Fine.” Jet strode back through the small room and into the even tinier bathroom. If he couldn’t walk by the ocean then he’d at least have a bath.

A shower. The room wasn’t big enough to hold a tub. It didn’t even have a window. He snarled as he stripped out of Pat’s old clothes and stepped under the spray. Enforcers were in Low City, among other places. Low City, where Doll was. What was he still doing here with these non-family? He should have left them as soon as they were safe. But then what? Jet couldn’t just go back to Arden as if nothing had happened. Merrell knew it was him who’d freed the prisoners. He’d sent Daniel of all people after him! They’d be looking for him in Low City, too. He didn’t put it past Merrell to use Doll to get to him, but he didn’t think Merrell would harm her. He wasn’t so sure about Daniel, however.

Muted voices from the other room drifted through the pounding of the water. Reg must be back. Had he found his contact? Jet shut off the water.

Immediately the voices from the other room cut off. Jet got dressed and went to join the others. The doorknob wouldn’t turn. Jet jerked it harder. “Hey!” he yelled. “It’s stuck.”

“It’s not stuck.” Reg’s voice, grim.

What was Reg up to? Jet could easily get out of the tiny bathroom, and Reg knew it. Unless . . . “Who’s there with you?” he called through the door, playing along.

Another voice, this one older, deeper. “In the name of the Sons of Men, I am taking you into custody. You will submit to this or face immediate execution. Do you understand?”

“Not really,” Jet replied. “But all right. Open the door. I’ll submit.”

When the bathroom door opened, all three of the non-family boys looked at him worriedly. The other man, the Sons of Men contact, apparently, leveled a rifle at him. He was shorter than Jet, shorter than Reg, too, with thin brown hair and a full beard peppered with white. Family kept their black hair until they died—it never changed color. Jet put his hands up.

“Over there.” The man nodded towards the main door. Jet complied, glancing at Reg as he walked by. Reg flushed.

“Where are we going?”

“Not your business!” the man snapped, prodding Jet’s back with the rifle. He had Reg tie a white cloth over Jet’s eyes, then marched him out the door and into a waiting car, not the rental car. The other boys climbed in also.

Jet settled back into his seat and waited to be driven to his fate. None of the others spoke much.

“So, do Sons of Men regularly kidnap Family?” Jet asked conversationally after a while. He could tell night had fallen but not much else. He hoped they got to where they were going soon because he was getting hungry.

“Shut up,” the man sitting next to him said absently. He kept his rifle across his knees with the point jabbing uncomfortably into Jet’s side.

“No, they don’t.” Reg spoke from the front seat. “The circumstances are a little—unusual.”

Yeah, they were. Reg and Ricky were supposed to be dead. Family was not supposed to be hunting them; in fact, any Family who’d heard the name Sons of Men should have been safely dead. Jet chuckled. What a mess.

“What about Patrick here?” Jet asked, just to be contrary. “He’s not one of you either.”

“He’s human,” the man growled. “That’s more than you can say.”

Jet shut up.

Not long after, they pulled into a gravel drive and hustled Jet, still blindfolded, out of the car and down a long series of steps to a sub-basement of some sort. Jet was thrown into another bathroom and the door was locked from the outside. As soon as he was alone, he ripped off the blindfold. Yes, definitely a bathroom.

His stomach growled. Reg had never told his contact about Jet’s other abilities. He must not have told him that Jet was Prince Roderick either, or his treatment would have been much worse. The question was, why? Jet was willing to play along and find out—as long as they fed him. “Hey!” he yelled. “I’m hungry!”

“Jet? Wait, it’s us. Terence went to get the area leader. He’ll bring back food for all of us then. Be patient a little bit longer.” That was Reg.

Jet dissolved his body and oozed through the crack at the bottom of the door, startling only Pat with his sudden appearance. Jet looked around curiously. They were in a basement with no windows and only the door they had come in through. It was stark, bare except for a battered sofa at one end and a few folding chairs in the middle. Garish white light illuminated the room but did it no favors.

Ricky zipped past Jet to use the bathroom. Jet noticed with a slight smile that he left the door slightly ajar. It had been a long trip.

“What’s going on?” Jet asked, taking one of the folding chairs. He sat on it backwards, folding his arms across the backrest. “Are the Sons of Men planning to kill me?”

Reg shook his head. “I don’t know, Jet. I had to tell them about you so they’d know how we escaped, but the ones I met with didn’t trust me. They think this is a set-up. That’s why they brought us to the area leader. He’ll decide what to do with us.”

Jet raised his eyebrows. “I notice you weren’t locked in a bathroom.” Their eyes automatically swiveled to where Ricky was just now finishing his business.

Reg smiled wryly. “Locked in? You could get out any time you chose. No, they didn’t lock us up, but you can see for yourself we’re not exactly free to go.” Reg sighed. “It was easier when you were the enemy.”

Jet’s mouth quirked up in a lopsided grin. “You mean I’m not?”

Grinning back a little uneasily, Reg replied, “I don’t know what you are, but you’re not my enemy.”

Boots clattered on the stairs. Reg looked up. “Hurry! Get back in the bathroom.” When Jet didn’t move, he added, “Please? They’ll think we let you out.”

Jet didn’t see anything wrong with that. “So?”

It was too late anyway. The outside door opened and three well-armed Sons of Men crowded the doorway.

“Terence!” Jet greeted the man who had been his guard on the ride over. “You got my dinner?”

Terence blinked at hearing Jet speak his name. He pointed his gun at Jet. “What are you doing loose?”

“Well, you see, Ricky had to go, and . . . “ Jet deliberately trailed off. “You did bring food, right?”

In the meantime, the other two Sons of Men pushed into the basement room, leveling their guns at not only Jet, but at the others as well. “Everybody, sit down.”

They heard another set of boots clomp down the stairs. A sandy-haired non-family man stooped to go through the doorway, and Reg jumped up, heedless of the weapons the other Sons of Men had trained on him, and saluted. “Sir! Reginald Archer, Squad Seven of the Northern Quadrant, delivering a political prisoner.” He glanced guiltily at Jet. “Prince Roderick Estee.”

Jet ignored Reg’s betrayal. He stared at the tall commander of the Southern Area. “Ben?”

The man stopped dead in his tracks. “Jet? You look—not that different.” Ben took in Jet’s braids, his tatty clothes, and shook his head in amazement. “How are you Jet?”

Ricky’s mouth dropped open. Reg paled, but he didn’t move, waiting for the area leader to acknowledge him. Ben motioned for his guards to stand down. They moved to the walls, keeping their weapons pointed towards the floor, stone-faced as any enforcer.

“How—how am I? I thought you were dead, Ben! I went back to Low City and you were gone. I thought Merrell had done it. Are you—were you—part of the Sons of Men this whole time?”

Ben strode forward and pulled Jet into a rough hug, startling a gasp out of Pat. “There’s a lot we need to talk about,” he said, pulling back, “but not now.” Ben turned to Reg. “Good job, soldier. I’ll take it from here.” Turning back to Jet, he said, “So you’re Prince Roderick after all.”

“I’m still me, you know that, Ben. What’s this all about, this Sons of Men thing? I can’t believe you hate Family like all these other guys.” Jet’s arm encompassed the entire basement room, including Reg and his friends. “Granted, I didn’t know for sure I was Family back then, but you always thought so, didn’t you?”

“It’s not a matter of hate,” Ben replied, leading Jet to the couch. They both sat down. “It’s about survival. How much do you know about the Sons of Men?”

“Not much.” Jet glanced at Reg. “Your soldiers were very careful not to give away any secrets.”

“You saved them.” Ben said. “Why?”

“What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t let them die.”

Ben smiled. “Well, then, you see my dilemma.”

"No, I don’t think I do,” Jet said, frowning. Was Ben saying he had to choose whether or not to kill Jet?

“You’ve complicated things for us, Jet. The Sons of Men weren’t ready to come out into the open yet, but now we have no choice. The Enforcer is looking for us—for you.” Ben’s look swept across Reg and Ricky. “This was not supposed to have happened.”

Jet’s stomach took that moment to growl fiercely. Ben laughed. “Same old Jet. Will you promise not to leave until I get this sorted out? Come with me and I’ll get you something to eat.”

Ben rose to speak briefly with his companions, and whatever he said had them grudgingly moving aside. Jet hadn’t promised anything, but Ben didn’t seem to care. Maybe he thought he knew Jet well enough to trust him. Trouble was, Jet wasn’t sure he knew himself well enough to make that promise. He was not so worried that Ben would succeed in killing him, but it bothered him to think Ben might feel obligated to try. Still, he followed his old friend up the stairs into the building above. Reg, Ricky and Pat were behind him, with the three guards following last.

“I don’t believe it.” Jet laughed out loud. The building upstairs was a sandwich shop, closed up for the night, but laid out pretty much the same way Ben’s shop in Low City had been. Jet went behind the counter and helped himself to some of the meats there, slicing them deftly onto waxed paper. He helped Ben prepare sandwiches for all of them, guards included, much to everyone else’s astonishment.

Ben smiled. “It’s what I know. When I had to leave Low City, I still had to make a living so I started over here. Actually, this is my mother’s hometown. I grew up here.”

Jet swallowed the bite of sandwich he’d been chewing on and paused before taking another. “You had to leave Low City? Was it because of me?”

Ben looked around at all the interested faces at the nearby tables. “I’d rather not discuss it now,” he said softly, but Jet shook his head.

“It’s too late already. I know too much, you said it yourself. I have nothing to hide from these three.” He glanced pointedly at Reg, who flushed and lowered his head. “Unless you don’t want your Sons of Men knowing what you’ve done in the past.”

“Terence? Robert? Bill?”

The three guards looked at Ben. “We’re your men.” Terence spoke for all of them.

“Yes, I left Low City in part because of you. I stayed in Low City because of you too. When you left, I had no reason to stay, and when the enforcers came around asking questions about you, I knew it was time to leave. I have been one of the Sons of Men since I was younger than you, Jet. I lived through the blast in the Eastern Quadrant, barely, and made my way to Low City like a lot of other refugees from that area. I survived the big fire in Low City, the one started in retaliation for the loss of little Prince Roderick Estee. When I found the little runaway boy in my sandwich shop stealing bread, I put two and two together. I figured you were Roderick from the start.”

“Why didn’t you turn me back in to my Family?” Jet asked.

“The Sons of Men thought it would be a good idea if I befriended you instead,” Ben replied quietly.

Jet felt like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. He pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. “You’ve known about me all along?”

Again Ben glanced at the others. “That you were Family, yes. That you were the missing, presumed dead Prince, yes again. That’s all, Jet.”

He didn’t mention Jet’s other powers. He probably thought none of the others knew about them either. “Why?” Jet asked. Why didn’t Ben tell the Sons of Men what Jet was really capable of? For that matter, why hadn’t Reg just now when he betrayed Jet to Ben?

Ben understood what Jet was asking. “Because by then I had grown to like you, Jet.”

“And now?”

“Now I don’t know what to do with you. I saw the news footage when King Roy announced you as his son. I saw the fliers attack, and knew they were sent to kill you.” He glanced at Reg and Ricky. “I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy. The operation wasn’t mine—the Northern Quadrant was responsible for it, as Reginald said. But you’ve all fallen into my lap so now it is my problem. I see no other way than to bring you to our main base in the Eastern Quadrant.”

“The blasted area?” Jet asked, thinking of Macek’s suspicions.

“That’s right. The leader of all the Sons of Men can decide what to do with you, because even though I should, I can’t.”

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