The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 31

Despite the familiarity of old habits when Jet helped Ben to make the sandwiches, there was an uneasy peace between the two of them as the evening wore down. Ben’s shop was a front for the Sons of Men. It had been one to a lesser degree in Low City also, a fact that Jet had never even suspected. Ben had never spoken a harsh word against the Family in Low City. Family had been some of his best customers.

Jet thought back to his earliest days in the subway tunnels beneath Low City. Ben had known who he was all along. And yet he had done nothing to protect the boy Jet had been except to feed him occasionally or allow him to shelter in his shop when the tunnels got too lonely. He hadn’t saved him from Box Man!

Jet shuddered as memories flooded over him. Nights filled with terror, beatings and worse until he figured out how to escape his tormenters by turning his body to mist or shadow so he could go places where his pursuers could not follow. Jet bled then, he felt pain and more than once had wished himself into oblivion. It must have worked, because Jet could let go of his self now any time he wanted.

Through it all, Ben had been Jet’s refuge. Jet had been a wild thing, and perhaps even if Ben had tried to tame him, it would only have caused Jet to flee from even that small bit of human comfort, but Ben hadn’t eve tried.

“Why didn’t you tell them about me back then?” Jet asked Ben quietly. After everyone had been settled in rooms upstairs in the big old house that had once been Ben’s mother’s, Jet had turned to smoke and flowed back downstairs. Ben sat in the darkened sandwich shop staring at the flickering television. It still droned on and on about the increased enforcer activity all over Attania.

Ben smiled bleakly. “Tell them what? That you’re a new sort of Family, one who has powers we can’t begin to imagine? I had a choice to make back then, and I made it. Don’t make me regret my choice, Jet. I suppose your new Family knows about your extra talents?”

Jet nodded. “It came up.”

“No wonder they’re looking so hard for you.”

“For me?” Jet sat straight in surprise. He’d assumed Merrell was looking for the escaped prisoners, and for Jet just incidentally as the instigator of their escape.

“Go to sleep, Jet,” Ben said tiredly. “Tomorrow we head out to the Eastern border. You can ask all your questions then.”

“Tell me one thing,” Jet said, getting up. “Were you ever really my friend?”

“If I wasn’t, you’d be dead now,” Ben said bluntly, waving Jet away.

The morning dawned cold and clear. Ben already had the news on, grimly silent as he watched continued reports on enforcer sightings in local towns. Slowly the others stumbled down to breakfast.

Patrick, they decided, would head back to West Barton since that city seemed clear of enforcers for the moment. Ricky and Reg, because they were fugitives, would remain in Palmer, which was the name of Ben’s hometown, until Ben figured out what to do with them. Jet would accompany Ben to the blasted area in the Eastern Quadrant to meet with the leader of the Sons of Men and find out his fate.

“I’m going with you,” Reg announced, glancing at Jet. “I need to see this through to the end.”

Jet’s lips quirked. There were so many ways Reg could mean that. “Fine by me, but I have a stop to make along the way.”

“Impossible.” Ben shook his head when Jet told him he needed to stop in Low City first. “Enforcers are crawling all over Low City. That’s the first place they’ll look.”

Jet shrugged. “Then I’ll go by myself. I know my way around. Why don’t I meet you at the blasted lands in, say—a week?” He grinned.

“Jet,” Ben said, exasperated.

Still grinning, Jet pointed out, “You can’t stop me.”

“It’s dangerous,” Ben said.

Jet laughed. “You’re taking me to what might be my death sentence. I think you owe me one small detour.”

In the end, they went together to Low City—Jet, Ben and Reg. Ben drove a run-down box truck used for hauling produce, and made Jet and Reg ride in the back with the vegetables.

Twice they were stopped amid lines of traffic and the truck was given a cursory search both times by enforcers Jet had never met—probably local ones that Merrell had conscripted into duty to cover a wider territory. Both times, Jet hid himself and Reg under a layer of shadow. Ben, apparently, had an entire false identity he used, not that anyone would link him with the escaped fugitives anyway. He was a farmer, plain and simple. The enforcers waved him on.

Ben drove to the markets along the riverbank on the non-family side of Low City. He parked the truck and Jet and Reg slipped out the back. Ben handed Reg a crate of vegetables. “We’re here—now what?” he said to Jet. “I can’t stay here long. And you—“ He looked at Jet’s pale skin, his opinion clear on Jet’s Family appearance, despite his braids.

“I know. I’ll be back.” Jet dissolved into light this time, blending with the sunlight that glinted off the river. He vanished into the atmosphere, leaving Reg and Ben staring up after him.

It was a risk, Jet knew, to go to Doll’s house. He told himself he was just making sure she was all right. But if he were Merrell, he would be watching Doll in case Jet did something stupid like he was doing right now.

On the way to Low City, Jet and Reg had had plenty of time to talk. “I’m sorry,” Reg said.

“You just did what you thought you had to,” Jet answered. “You must have known they couldn’t hold me. So why did you do it?”

Reg leaned up on one elbow. “That’s just it. I think I did know, so that’s why I did it. Family aren’t like real people. They say when you die, you just return to your natural state. Didn’t know you could do it without dying first.”

“What are you talking about?” Jet craned his neck to stare at Reg.

“The Sons of Men aren’t killing people. We’re releasing Family to their true forms.” Reg spoke earnestly. “I thought I was doing the right thing until I met you and your girlfriend. You’re people. I’m just glad I couldn’t kill you even if I tried. I’d feel awful.”

“Like I was real or something?” Jet asked sarcastically. “I’m real. See?” He scratched his arm and a welt appeared. He didn’t tell Reg that he could conceivably be killed also, if he were taken unawares. “And Doll and all the rest of them are as solid as you are. If you kill them, they’re gone. Why would you think otherwise?”

Reg gave a hollow laugh. “You’re the proof. Before, we all just believed it because that’s what the Sons of Men preached, and deep down, I guess we wanted to believe it. But now I know the Sons of Men were right all along. Only thing is, you’re not dead.”

“No, I’m not dead,” Jet agreed sullenly, rolling over. In just a few minutes he had learned the true objective of the Sons of Men, and it sent a chill right down his spine. He thought of young Charles, and Mattie, and even Lorra, their young lives snuffed out for their own good, because they didn’t belong on this earth in human form, according to the Sons of Men. What utter nonsense.

Jet put his conversation with Reg out of his mind for the time being. He circled high above Low City before heading over to Doll’s house. He spied enforcers in the City, but they were on the lookout for a solid body hidden by light or shadow, not light or shadow itself. Merrell had not gone that far and told his people about Jet’s strange abilities, which worked to Jet’s advantage now. On the other hand, Jet had to watch out for Merrell himself, who did know most of Jet’s tricks.

He saw no sign of Daniel.

Doll’s parents lived in a low-rise brick building close to the non-family end of Low City, although still technically on the Family side of the river. From above, it appeared unguarded but Jet wanted to be sure. He found entrance through an upper-story window which turned out to be the parents’ bedroom, and made sure he was alone before he materialized. Now, to find Doll.

They had driven through most of the day and slept on the side of the road so that they could arrive in Low City at dawn, when the vendors typically showed up to market with their wares. It was still rather early, and as Jet had hoped, Doll was sleeping in her bed. Jet smiled.

Slipping in beside her, he wrapped his arms around her, waiting until she stirred before taking on the substance of flame so he could merge with the flame that was Doll’s core. She had just enough time to gasp before she was engulfed in flame. This time Doll didn’t pull back. As Jet’s fiery essence sank into her, she let her own fire rise to meet his until they coalesced, one flame, united. They burned brightly for several minutes before Jet reluctantly withdrew. Better than sex, he whispered into her mind while they were still one. Miss me?

Solid again, Doll lay in Jet’s arms and smiled contentedly. “It’s only been a few days, but yes,” she murmured. “And I’d like to be the judge of that, if you don’t mind.” Eyes sparkling, she kissed him soundly.

“Judge of what? Oh.” Jet realized. He grinned. “All right!”

Doll squealed. “Not here! Not now! My parents are downstairs!”

“Then let’s go meet them,” Jet said, taking Doll’s hand. “You can tell them your boyfriend is Prince Roderick Estee. They might get a kick out of that. Although, on second thought, maybe not. I’m not in such good graces with the Family right now.”

“I know!” Doll practically hissed, dragging back on Jet’s arm. “Macek Merrell was here last night talking to my parents!”

It could have been worse. It could have been Thomas Merrell himself. Or Daniel. “Where is he now?”

“How should I know? He said he was looking for you. I told him you weren’t here. He left. I don’t think he believed me, though. He could be anywhere, Jet! He’s royal!”

“Well, so am I,” Jet said with a slow smile. Macek was one of the few who knew Jet’s secret. Macek was also a scholar, and extremely interested in the blasted area in the east. “Let’s go find Macek then!”

Jet dragged Doll behind him down the stairs to her parents’ kitchen, where they were having coffee and murmuring quietly to one another. They looked up as Jet appeared in the doorway with Doll in tow. Doll’s father stood up so quickly that his chair crashed to the floor behind him. “You!” He pointed an accusatory finger at Jet, who pantomimed looking behind him at Doll.

Mrs. Spencer glanced at the outside door and away, as if afraid she would be giving away a secret. Trouble was, she already had. “Is it Macek?” Jet wanted to know. “Is he out there?” He strode towards the kitchen door. “By the way, pleased to meet you. My name’s Roderick, but you can call me Jet.” He gave Doll’s mother a beaming smile.

A car was parked in back of Doll’s building—a sleek, black limousine that was altogether too familiar to Jet. In case Macek was not alone, Jet turned to wind and drifted down to check out the car. Did they think he would not recognize the mark of Family if he did come calling, or were they just that arrogant? Easing through the ventilation system, Jet swirled quietly around the car, back and front, and was glad he had chosen this form because there was an enforcer behind the wheel, one Jet did not recognize. The man was half asleep and completely unaware of Jet’s presence. He batted at his face when Jet’s cool wind passed him by, coming fully awake and looking around the car in confusion. When he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, the enforcer settled back down, folding his arms across his chest, although this time he kept his eyes open and stared straight ahead. Where was Macek, Jet wondered.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist,” Macek’s voice said smugly as Jet exited the vehicle once more through the vents, stirring up a flurry of leaves as he did so. A shadow detached itself from the darker shadows at the corner of the building, revealing Macek at last.

“There you are,” Jet said as if he had been expecting Macek all along. In actuality, Macek had surprised him. He hadn’t thought the serious man capable of such subterfuge. “If you don’t mind, can I talk to you alone, without your friend?” He glanced back at the limousine, but the driver hadn’t heard Macek’s remark and still stared straight ahead. He was a decoy, no more.

“I have friends all over this area,” Macek sneered, but he moved quietly back into the shadow of the building, motioning for Jet to do the same. “It’s too late for you to try to run.”

It wasn’t, of course, and both Macek and Jet knew that. But Jet didn’t want to run. “We need to talk,” he said to Macek.

Doll’s parents watched anxiously from the kitchen door as Jet and Macek came back inside. “Is it safe?” Doll’s mother asked.

“You need to go upstairs,” Macek told the Spencers. “I have the situation under control.”

Doll shook her head vehemently. “I’m staying.”

Jet, who had lifted his eyebrow at Macek’s comment, laughed tightly. “Let her stay. She needs to hear this, too.”

Her parents predictably objected, but Macek overruled them. Somehow, his being a member of the royal Family pulled more weight with them than Jet’s being the King’s son. Maybe because Jet was interested in their daughter. Who knows what Macek had said to them previously about Jet also?

“Why did you do it, Jet?” Macek asked once the parents were safely upstairs. “Why did you set the prisoners free? We could have learned so much from them!”

“Your father would have killed them as soon as you did.”

“So?” Macek was genuinely confused. “They tried to murder the King’s entire family! Of course they were going to have to die!”

Macek had a valid point. And now that Jet knew why—that the Sons of Men didn’t think of it as killing Family, but rather of freeing them from a human form they were never meant to have—Jet was re-thinking his whole perspective on the issue. But he had only Reg’s word for it. And despite everything, he still liked Reg. He wanted to find out more. “What if I told you that I was going to the blasted area to meet with the leader of the Sons of Men?”

“You traitor!” Macek shouted immediately, pounding his fist on the kitchen table.

“That’s not what I meant,” Jet said in exasperation. Macek sounded like Ricky when Jet had first met him. “I meant go there, talk to the guy, find out why they’re doing these things to the Family. Maybe find out what we can do about it.” Jet’s lips quirked. “Besides, they want to kill me too.”

“What? Jet, you can’t go!” Doll had been so silent that Jet had nearly forgotten she was there. She grabbed Jet’s arm and spun him around to look at her. “Maybe Macek is right. But what’s done is done. The prisoners are free, but you came back to us. You can start over with the Family. I’m sure you’re more important than some rebel kids. Don’t risk your life for some cause that has nothing to do with us!”

“I didn’t say I was going to let them kill me,” Jet said. “Macek, they know things about the Family that we don’t—I’m not saying what they are telling me is true, but don’t you think we should try to find out? You’ve wanted to get into the blasted lands for a long time now, but you haven’t been able to find a way. I’ve got one now. Let me find out what the real story is behind the Sons of Men.”

“You’re planning on coming back? You’re not joining them?”

“I don’t think I qualify as a member,” Jet said wryly. “Yes, I’m coming back.”

“And you’ll share what you learn with the Family?”

Jet nodded. As much as he thought appropriate, anyway. “With you,” he said, making a decision. Macek had a level head; Jet trusted Macek to do the right thing with the information more than he trusted Merrell.

“There’s no chance that I could come with you, is there?” Macek asked.


Doll rolled her eyes. “I’m coming,” she said, glaring at both of them. “Don’t even try to stop me. You get in way too much trouble without me around, Jet.”

Macek took a breath to argue, but Jet said, “Fine. I was going to ask you anyway.” He turned to Macek. “Can you keep doing what you’re doing here while I’m gone so Merrell doesn’t find out?”

“You mean be on guard for you? Yeah, I can do that, up to a point. You know, the Family isn’t your enemy, Jet. Your father the King was hurt by what you did. So was my father, although he didn’t say it in so many words.”

Jet highly doubted that. “And Daniel?” he asked skeptically. He’d seen Daniel out searching for him in West Barton. Daniel had seemed only too eager to get in Merrell’s good graces by capturing his newly-found “brother.”

“Daniel’s immature. You know that. He’ll grow up eventually. Jet, I’m trusting you. Come back.”

“I will,” Jet promised. He took Doll’s hand, and because she wasn’t able to dissolve her body to anything else except her own element, fire, which might be a little to showy right now, he cloaked them both in shadow and left by the front door.

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