The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 32

Ben scowled when Jet showed up with another Family member. “Who’s this?” he muttered, then looked a little more closely. “Is that the girl from the library? The one you were always going to see?”

Doll glanced at Jet, clearly startled. She’d thought he had just been coming to use the library. Jet chuckled, and drew her closer. “This is Doll Spencer. She’s coming with us.”

“No. Absolutely not,” Ben said. “It’s going to be hard enough getting you in, the way you look. She’s too clearly Family. There’s no way she will get through.”

From the way the King and Merrell had been talking, Jet had been under the impression that no one got through to the blasted area. Obviously that was not true. “I thought I was your prisoner,” Jet said.

Ben snorted. “You’re my prisoner for as long as you want to be.” He eyed Doll. “Can you say the same for her?”

Jet shrugged. “Maybe. We’ll see. Don’t worry about hiding us. I can do that.”

Ben gave in, grumbling as he pulled the now-empty produce truck into traffic. Reg, Jet and Doll sat on burlap bags in the back, bouncing around every time Ben hit the brakes. Reg kept very quiet, gazing thoughtfully at Jet as he held Doll in his arms through the worst of it. There were roadblocks into and out of Low City, but Jet layered the three of them with shadow, and the enforcers never even climbed into the back of the vehicle to make a more thorough inspection.

Several miles outside the City, the road became narrower. They passed fewer and fewer vehicles, all going in the opposite direction. A few hours later, Ben pulled over to the side. “We’ll leave the truck here.”

Already the landscape was desolate. Instead of small towns or the occasional farm, an open expanse devoid of trees stretched out in front of them. The road sloped steadily downward through gently rolling hills covered with only a thin scattering of brownish grass. As the group walked slowly eastward, the paved road abruptly ended. Dirt covered what might have been its course, and a west wind blew it steadily over them, making Jet spit out the grit.

“This is ridiculous,” he said, waving a hand. He sent his own wind forward to clear a path for them, making walking and seeing easier, although there really wasn’t anything to see. “Is that why no one ever comes here? Because it’s a constant pain in the ass?” The road behind them was no longer visible. Outside of Jet’s small cocoon of stillness the wind howled and sand masked any landmarks they might have used to mark their way. Jet hoped Ben knew where he was going.

Suddenly a flash of lightning cut through the gloom and rain fell on them in torrents. “Oh come on,” Jet muttered. He threw up both arms and shoved the storm away. “Somebody isn’t very happy to see us.”

“Nobody’s doing this, Jet,” Ben said. “Since the blast, these lands have always exhibited wild weather extremes. The closer to the center you get, the worse it is. We think it’s a result of the explosion which leveled this whole area.”

“Ridiculous,” Jet said again. He knew better. He could do the same things; in fact, he was doing the same thing, to counter whoever was throwing all this weather against them. If he didn’t know better, he’d guess his father the King was causing it.

They plodded on through the sandstorm which had returned with a vengeance after Jet banished the rain. Jet kept his bubble of serenity around them, and wondered how Ben managed all those other times he came here without Family to clear the path for him. He asked him. “I’ve never actually been here since the blast,” Ben admitted. “I’ve heard things, though. All the quadrant leaders are taught how to access the tunnels once we pass through this phase. It’s once we’re in the tunnels that we may have a problem. I don’t think any of us has ever brought in Family before.”

Jet grinned. “Like I said, I’m your prisoner, right?”

Ben took something out of his pocket and held it in front of him. “This way,” Ben said, pointing slightly to the left. Jet wondered what the thing in his hand was—another invention like the fliers? He followed Ben, and the others followed him, as the endless sand rose slightly up, then sharply down until suddenly they were out of it. The silence was deafening.

Jet let his wind dissipate and looked around him. They had entered a vertical slit in the side of a hill which quickly widened into a good-sized cavern. Outside, the sandstorm still raged. Jet called up a ball of light and heard the click of several firearms. “Oops.” He released the light. “Ben, I hope these people are yours,” he said in a low voice.

In the semi-darkness, Ben fumbled for a flashlight. Bright light immediately flooded the cavern. Ben faced the grim-looking men holding guns. He showed them the gadget he’d used to find the tunnel. “I’m Benjamin Reaves, Field Leader of the Southern Quadrant. This is my assistant, Reginald Archer. These,” he indicated Jet and Doll. “—are my prisoners.”

“Prisoners!” One of the guards spat derisively. “We don’t take Family prisoners.”

“This is a special case. I’ve caught the next King of Attania—Roderick Estee. I need to see Aylard.”

“Nobody sees Aylard,” another guard said, but he lowered his weapon. “I’ll take you to our quadrant leader. You can tell him your story. The prisoners will have to be blindfolded.”

Of course. Jet let these new Sons of Men blindfold him and Doll, but he held tightly to Doll’s hand. If he had to get out of here in a hurry, she was coming with him. They put a blindfold on Reg, too. Only Ben had authorization to enter the caverns underneath the blasted area. Reg was a risk until proven otherwise.

They walked a short distance down a steep decline and helped, none too gently, into a small box. A low hum rippled through the box and Jet felt movement. Another one of their inventions? His stomach dropped out from under him. He tightened his grip on Doll’s hand, but before he had time to do anything else, the box they were in shuddered to a stop. They were prodded out, Ben as well, and moved to yet another conveyance. It wasn’t as noisy as a car and it moved smoothly in a very straight line. Jet would have given a lot to take his blindfold off right then and there.

Reg, apparently, felt the same way. “Is this the one-rail?” he asked in a hushed voice.

One of their guards, Jet thought it was the one who had decided to bring them further into the caves, spoke sharply. “How do you know about the one-rail?”

Ben answered. “Reginald is one of the pilots of the aerial flitters in the Northern Quadrant.”

Silence. Then suddenly the blindfolds were ripped off, and Jet saw that they truly were traveling on one rail instead of two. Their conveyance was slimmer than a car or a train, with just one seat on each side of a center aisle, and no pilot or whatever you called it in front. “How does it go?” he asked, although perhaps he should have asked why the Sons of Men had decided to remove their blindfolds instead. No one answered him, so he stared out the front window. There were no side windows. Jet saw why when they finally stopped. The one-rail had been hurtling through stone tunnels not much wider than the contraption itself. It stopped now in an enormous cavern which was brightly lit with electric lights from above to simulate a daytime sky. The cavern was filled with buildings and streets, resembling an above-ground city. Like a city, it bustled with people, too—all non-family.

“Out.” The guard nudged Jet with his gun.

“What is this place?”

“Quiet. The people here don’t like Family. I can’t guarantee one of them won’t try to kill you as soon as they get a good look at you. So if you want to breathe a little longer, shut up.” He hurried them all along into an official-looking building and left them there under guard while he went to report to his own superior. Ben’s revelation concerning Reginald had changed matters.

Reg looked shaken, and even Ben wasn’t saying much. Before long, another non-family man arrived and shook hands with Ben. The two of them went into another room to talk, and all Jet could hear was a quiet murmur, nothing distinguishable. After a long while, the two men came back. “Reginald Archer,” the Eastern Quadrant leader said, “is it true you were part of the attack team sent to eliminate Roderick Estee?” He left off ‘Prince.’ “And is it true that Roderick Estee eventually freed you against all known Family protocol?”

“Yes, sir.” Reg didn’t sound particularly happy about it.

“And what were your orders?”

“To succeed in the mission at all costs.” Reg reddened and lowered his gaze.

“Did you succeed?”

“No, I—I was captured, sir. Worse, I let an aerial-flitter be captured as well. It was destroyed, though, sir. I’m not sure if the enemy was able to gain any information from it first.”

Jet cleared his throat. “I don’t think your enemy really cared,” he said, thinking of Merrell.

The quadrant leader swung around to stare at Jet. “Speak when you’re spoken to,” he warned, before turning back to interview Reg. “So did you fail? I see Roderick Estee here in front of me. Even though you didn’t eliminate him, you were able to capture him and turn him over to a quadrant leader. I’d say you didn’t do a half-bad job, considering the circumstances.” The leader turned his attention to Jet. “Ben should have eliminated you the minute Reginald brought you to him. But he didn’t. Instead he brought you to the heart of our organization. You and your---friend. That isn’t done. So now you’re my problem. I have to think on this. You will remain here with Reginald and Ben as your guards until I figure out what to do with you.”

“What is this place?” Jet asked again, not at all cowed by the quadrant leader’s little speech. Of course he would remain here. At least until he found out what the Sons of Men were all about. That’s why he had come in the first place. And now he had some other questions he wanted answers to.

The leader paused in the doorway. “Don’t you recognize it? Oh, no, you were just a baby when your father the King erased Parrion from the face of the earth! He might have blasted Parrion and all the lands around it, but he didn’t kill us all! The Sons of Men recovered and rebuilt Parrion in the tunnels and caverns below the scorched earth, where your father the King will never think to look for us! Here we continue our work until one day we will spread our message to all the true people of Attania.” He smiled cruelly. “Consider Parrion your last home, because you will never leave it.”

Doll trembled as the door slammed. Reg took off his coat and offered it to her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean for you to get caught up in all this.”

“Didn’t you?” Doll shook off the coat, breathing deeply and evenly to calm herself. “If the Sons of Men have their way, I’d be just as dead whether it happens here and now, or later somewhere else. Am I right?” She glared at Reg and Ben, then took Jet’s hand. “I made my choice.”

Reg blinked. “I didn’t mean—I only meant I don’t want you to die either.”

“Nobody’s going to die,” Jet said. “Ben, what did he mean about my father?”

“Let me tell you what happened here. When I was a young man, Parrion was a thriving city in the east, even more so than Low City. The King had a wife here, and children also, as he did in all the major cities across Attania. They lived in the heart of Parrion. I saw them once. The King’s wife was tall like most Family, with black hair she wore done up in a knot on top of her head. She had a little boy and a little girl only a few years older than you, Jet.”

“What were you doing in Parrion?” Jet asked. He wanted to ask about these half-siblings also, but had a sneaking feeling he was about to find out. Merrell had never mentioned any Family from the blasted area.

Ben sighed. “I was young. I saw Family as tyrants who received all the good jobs, all the best land, all because they had abilities I could never possess. Palmer was mostly a non-family town, but I had heard what happened to non-family in other places, and it wasn’t fair. So I joined a group of discontented young people who, long story short, led me to Parrion. It was here I first learned about the Sons of Men.”

Ben explained that the Sons of Men were an ancient organization which had never really died out even through repeated attempts by the Family to eradicate them. “Why?” Jet asked.

“Every time we humans made an advancement that the Family felt threatened by, they would stamp it out, and stamp out the humans behind it. Over and over again through the centuries. Why do you think that is, Jet? Why wouldn’t the Family let us develop things to make our lives easier?”

It was like hearing two sides of the same story. Jet knew from Merrell that the Family were few compared to the multitude of non-family, and that in order to maintain their authority, they had to use whatever advantage they possessed—in their case, their elemental abilities. But it was a fine line between fear and respect, so Family for the most part did not flaunt their extra abilities. Except for people like the King and the Enforcer. “Like the fliers?” Jet guessed.

"Exactly. We live on your sufferance.”

That wasn’t fair, Jet thought. Most Family had no idea these things were going on. They didn’t even use their own elemental powers. “Go on,” he said, tightening his jaw. He noticed Reg was listening just as intently as he and Doll were.

“There was an incident.” Ben picked up the story. “Someone killed the Queen in Parrion and her two children along with her. It was one of us—one of the Sons of Men. It was supposed to be the start of a great change across Attania. It was a great change, all right. When the King found out what had happened to his family, he wiped Parrion off the face of the earth and all its people with it, whether they were guilty or not.”

Jet thought of the great fire in Low City after he had been presumed kidnapped. Family always responded to threats ruthlessly and violently. But not unprovoked. “Why did the Sons of Men kill the Queen and her children?” His brother and sister. “They were innocent.”

“The Sons of Men originated in Parrion,” Ben continued. “Our leader is from here. He organized our group and gave it purpose. Most of us were merely discontent with our lot in life, and were looking to make things better. Aylard explained to us the tenets of the Sons of Men. Humans, us,” he gave Doll an apologetic smile, “are real. Family, you, are not. You can’t be. You look too much the same—tall, thin, black-haired, as if you all copied one model of what a human is supposed to look like and multiplied it. As soon as he explained it, I realized it was the truth.”

Jet scowled. “This Aylard seems to know a lot of things about Family.”

“Yes, he does. He’s studied old records. The second tenet of the Sons of Men is that Family must be freed from their false human shells—“

The door opened. A shadow fell across the room as whoever stood in the doorway blocked most of the artificial light from outside. “I’ll take it from there, Ben.” The man stooped to enter the room. He was tall, at least as tall as Ben or Jet, and as gaunt as Jet’s father. The rest of him was unremarkable. His short hair was covered with a knit cap, but what showed from underneath it was a dingy brown, as was the skin on his face and hands. Only his eyes showed a brilliant green, as if they harbored an intelligence all their own. “My name is Aylard. And it is my duty to free so-called Family from their false human shells.” His eyes pierced Jet as he spoke.

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