The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 43

Ricky drove the flatbed truck like it was a flitter, with no regard for established pathways and seemingly bent on a suicide mission. His hands gripped the wheel tightly, which was the only reason he wasn’t flung about like the rest of them. “This is a really, really bad idea,” he muttered for the tenth time as he approached the manufacturing center to the north of the underground hideout. They had all agreed it was better for Ricky to follow his usual route than to attempt to bring them directly underground through the hidden entrance in the wilderness.

“I’ll say,” Daniel griped, grabbing for a handhold as the truck teetered on the brink of a particularly deep rut. He missed, and grabbed Jet’s arm instead. They both slewed sideways into the passenger door.

“Pat’s supposed to let Reg know we are coming,” Jet said, sliding back in his seat. “He’s meeting us at the airstrip.”

Patrick had stayed behind in Ballind to act as their intermediary in case something went wrong. He would get in touch with Ben in that case. He’d flatly refused to have anything to do with contacting the Family.

They could see the low buildings up ahead. Until this point, they had been half-hidden by forest, but now the ground in front of them dropped off to form a huge plain. Except for the small cluster of buildings directly in front of them and the long airstrip they bordered, there was nothing else except the snow-covered plain which gradually disappeared once again into forest. The small dip that hid the buildings and the airstrip was almost unnoticeable unless you were right on top of it, which explained why Merrell had never found it when he searched Ballind. Jet remembered from his study of Attania’s geography that there were few other towns this far north.

The wide scar in the earth that marked the northern entrance to the secret enclave was below them, on the underside of the hill, cleverly disguised as a parking garage. Ricky drove the flatbed down and around to the main road and stopped in front of the wide entrance. “We’re here.”

Daniel pulled open the door and lurched out, followed by Jet. Ricky got out the other side. “Now what?”

“Now we wait for Reg.”

Reg emerged from the depths of the parking garage on foot. He looked searchingly at Jet. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

“He can’t hurt me,” Jet said. “Did you tell them?”

Reg nodded. “They’ll be here soon.”

Ricky stuck out his hand to shake Jet’s. “Good luck,” he said. “You’re crazy, but I hope this works.” He hopped back into the flatbed and drove it around behind one of the factories to unload the crates he’d picked up in Ballind.

“Can I see the flitters?” Daniel asked. “I never got a chance the first time around.”

Per Jet’s instruction, relayed through Pat and Ricky, Reg had asked his father to meet him at the airstrip because he had received information from his contacts in Ballind regarding the whereabouts of the two Family Princes. All true. Except for the fact that the two Princes would be waiting with him at the airfield.

“Sure. Why not?” They had a little time. Reg led them to a nearby factory, where pieces of flitters lay on low, flat platforms in various stages of assembly. Daniel ran over to the nearest one and clambered up beside the non-family worker who was doing something to the inside of one.

The worker did a double-take when he saw Daniel, but as soon as he realized the kid was with Reg, he went back to what he was doing. Daniel’s skin was still tinted to hide his natural paleness; so was Jet’s, with dirt. They both wore knit caps over their dark hair. If Reg hadn’t been with them, the workers might have been more suspicious, but Reg was the Northern Quadrant leader’s son.

Daniel asked several questions and after a time the worker let him handle one of the pieces, explaining the assembly process as he guided Daniel through it. Daniel’s face glowed with pride as he completed the piece the worker had started.

Reg stood off to the side with Jet. “We construct the flitters mainly by hand, a few at a time. Our last expedition, as you know, wiped out everything we had. We’re just starting up again. It’s a slow process because we have to be careful about getting the raw materials without drawing attention to ourselves.”

Jet glanced sharply at Reg. “Are you planning another attack?”

“The Sons of Men have several plans. The flitters are only a small part of it, but yes.” Reg smiled wanly. “We weren’t supposed to survive our attack on Darcy, but we did, because of you. My father didn’t know what to do with me and Ric when we showed up alive. I redeemed myself by ‘capturing’ Daniel, but he still doesn’t completely trust me. We’re out of the flitter program. He lets Ricky drive transport between here and Ballind. Me, he keeps close, but he doesn’t share his plans with me anymore.”

The worker approached Reg and Jet, leaving Daniel to finish up at the work area. “Is this the new worker we were promised?” he asked. “He’s a quick learner.”

Reg shook his head. “No.”

“Shame. He’s good,” the man commented. He walked back to his work area, spoke briefly with Daniel, who turned to leave, and started on another piece.

“Do you realize how much time flitters could save us? They don’t need to follow roads like trains or cars. They could cross Attania in a fraction of the time it would take an ordinary person!” Daniel said.

“They don’t carry much,” Jet observed. Neither did they, in their elemental state or if they traveled by cloud, as he’d done when he brought Reg and Ricky out of the prison in Darcy. But Daniel had a point. Flitters could prove to be very useful, and not just for attacks. In time, they could be adapted to carry more than just their driver. Goods and people could be moved effortlessly from one area of the country to the other.

“That could be changed,” Daniel said excitedly, mirroring Jet’s thoughts.

Reg interrupted them. “It’s time,” he said.

They trudged the short distance over the snow-packed road to the landing area. The snow here was piled higher and the place obviously hadn’t been used for a while. Reg’s father, the leader of the Northern Quadrant, waited at the edge of the packed snow with about twenty of his men, but not Aylard.

Jet felt a slight breeze blow past him, and he was very glad he had insisted that they drive rather than travel as elementals. Aylard’s wind guarded the enclave as surely as it had guarded the blasted area above Parrion. He would have felt Jet’s presence, and more importantly, felt Daniel’s as well, had they entered in elemental form. Just as they drew close to the Sons of Men, Aylard manifested with a swirl of snowy air.

Reg’s father glared in outrage at his son. “What is this? You never said you had captured the prisoners yourself!” He stopped short of moving against them, remembering that they were Family and that Jet was more than that. “Aylard!”

Aylard stalked forward, smiling in smug satisfaction. “I told you they would come back.” He gathered wind into his hands and fashioned it into a whirling tornado which he sent to encircle not only Jet and Daniel, but also Reg who stood with them. The wind rushed around them faster and faster, pulling loose snow into it until nothing could be seen at its center.

“Stop it! My son’s in there!” shouted Reg’s father.

Aylard cast him a dark glance, but he let his winds dissipate. Jet and Daniel stood on either side of Reg, protecting him from the icy blast with their elemental powers.

“We came to talk,” Jet said calmly, stepping away from Reg.

“Talk, talk, talk!” Aylard mimicked. “Haven’t you realized by now that there’s nothing left to talk about? I will release the Family to their true state, and the Sons of Men will assume their rightful place upon the earth.”

“You can’t hold me,” Jet reminded him.

“You’re one person,” Aylard replied, although he glanced nervously up at the empty sky. “But I can hold him!” Aylard thrust his arms forward and pinned Daniel in place with bonds of wind.

Daniel promptly disappeared and reappeared on the other side of Jet. “You can’t hold me, either,” he crowed, grinning fiercely.

Reg’s eyes widened, then he grinned, too. His father blanched, and he backed up quickly. His men pointed their weapons at the boys, but the elder Archer waved his arm impatiently. If they fired now, they would hit Reg too.

Aylard had no such compunction. He shot a bolt of cold shadow at Daniel, hoping to take him by surprise. It was only luck that kept it inches away from skewering Reg. Daniel let his corporeal body go so that the shadow could pass through unharmed, just as he had practiced with Jet. He laughed at the expression on Aylard’s face.

“I thought you told me none of the Family were capable of—that! Only him—Roderick—and you assured me he wouldn’t give us any trouble!” Reg’s father hissed.

Aylard frowned. “They’re not. Only Jet. He’s teaching some of the others, but none of them were at this level when I left. Certainly not this one!” He leveled a venomous stare at Daniel, who grinned back at him, still chuckling. “What have you done, Jet?”

Reg, meanwhile, hadn’t moved. He stood side by side with Jet and Daniel. “They’re willing to talk, Dad. Are you willing to listen?”

Archer rounded on his son. “Whose side are you on!” he shouted.

“Attania’s,” Reg replied calmly.

Jet stepped forward. He pretended he didn’t see Archer flinch. “I won’t let you use flitters or anything else to attack Family. You can see we are not as easy to destroy as Aylard has led you to believe. Will you listen to what I have to say?”

While Aylard stood stiffly by, the elder Archer shrugged in defeat. “Do I have a choice?” He glanced wearily at Reg. “You have my son.”

Jet shook his head. “Let’s go inside,” he suggested, tramping past Archer and his men, and a very disgruntled Aylard, with Daniel and Reg at his side. As they tramped past the few buildings on the way to the underground entrance, several workers gathered outside. They had seen the snow-tornado and stared uneasily at Aylard, who, with his snow-white skin and jet-black hair, now looked more Family than any of the rest of them. Daniel winked at the man who had let him work on one of the flitters, and manifested a small ball of light in the palm of his hand. The man’s jaw dropped open.

Archer had a meeting room large enough for not only himself, Aylard, Reg and the two Family Princes, but also for any of the Sons of Men who wanted to hear what Jet had to say. Jet had insisted upon it. That way, his words would not get conveniently swept away. There was far too much of that as it was. Several of the factory workers, including Daniel’s new friend, had trailed in behind them, as well as the soldiers who had accompanied Archer to meet with his son at the airstrip.

Jet lit the entire floor with a soft glow of light, to the dismay of many of the Sons of Men. Some actually jumped up and stood on their chair to avoid touching the light. “It’s harmless,” he told them, waiting for everyone to settle down. Reg and Daniel stood at the front of the packed room with him. Ricky pushed his way through the crowd and stood with them, giving Reg a quick grin.

“Most of you have heard about me,” Jet began. “My name is Roderick Estee, and I’m the son of Attania’s King. I am Family. I am also an Elemental. Until last year I didn’t know I was a Prince, and I wasn’t even sure I was Family. I learned a lot in the past year, including that the royal Family is more feared than loved in Attania. This is my brother Daniel.” Jet smiled. “Half-brother. I learned I had many, many brothers and sisters and cousins all over Attania. Except for Low City, where I grew up, I didn’t know a lot about Attania, either. I’m learning. I want to understand. I don’t like a lot of what I am seeing, and I think it should be changed, but not like this.

“I don’t think Family has to die. I don’t think non-family—humans—should be held back by Family, either. Aylard First, the leader of your Sons of Men, is an Elemental like me. But he’s not Family.” A growing murmur filled the room as people craned their necks for a look at the Elemental. Archer hadn’t shared that bit of information with all of his Sons of Men. “He believes all Family must die. He couches it in phrases like ‘be released,’ or ‘freed’ from their physical bodies, but it’s really murder. Not all Family are Elementals.” Jet demonstrated what he meant by disappearing from the front of the room and streaking across the ceiling as a beam of light, reappearing as himself at the back of the room. “Elementals don’t need to be freed of their bodies. We can let go of them ourselves, when we choose, and take them back when we choose. So Aylard’s argument is wrong. Instead of killing Family and saying it’s ‘freeing’ them to their true elemental state, why can’t we just teach Family to become Elementals too, like Aylard and me and Daniel?”

“That doesn’t solve the problem!” Reg’s father pushed his way towards the back of the room and raised his voice so he could be heard above the rising murmur of voices. “The royal Family have taken the best for yourselves for too many centuries. You rule Attania for your own selfish satisfaction. Even your own people suffer if they’re not one of the royals. You’re just a kid yourself. You can’t speak for the Enforcer or even for the King.”

Jet met Archer in the center of the room. People drew back to give them space. “Let me talk to my father,” he said. “There has to be another way.”

Aylard’s voice boomed across the room. “There isn’t,” he said with finality. “Attania is dying.”

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