The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 45

Ricky looked at Reg, who looked at Jet consternation. “I can’t believe with everything else going on I forgot!” He pulled out a device from his pocket. “Damn! Pat’s been trying to contact us for several days!” Reg rapidly punched a series of numbers into the device. “There—I gave him the signal for all-clear.”

They breathed a sigh of relief until Reg’s device suddenly began beeping madly. “He’s signaling me back that there’s a problem.”

“What does that mean?” Jet asked.

“I don’t know—we can’t really talk on these things. We go by certain codes. This one says he wants to meet at the apartment. Ricky, you’re on your way to Ballind now. You’d better go see what he wants.”

Patrick was supposed to contact Ben if something went wrong. It had only been a few days, but even if Pat had contacted Ben, there was no way Ben could have gotten to Ballind so quickly. “Maybe Daniel and I should go see what happened,” Jet suggested.

“Good idea. Hop in. I’ll take you,” Ricky said.

Jet shook his head. “It’s faster if we go our own way.”

Jet and Daniel transformed to wind and whirled along the countryside, bending trees and knocking the snow from them in their wake. Ricky followed a lot more slowly in his truck. Reg had volunteered to remain at Archer’s Cave with the promise that he would pay close attention to his communicator. Ricky had one in his truck, and the other one should still be in Pat’s apartment.

Daniel had taken to Elemental powers extremely easily compared to the other Family kids who had tried it. Even Doll could only hold her Elemental form for short periods of time. A part of Jet wanted to be suspicious of Daniel’s true intentions, but you could drive yourself crazy with too much of that kind of thinking. Right now Daniel was caught up in the excitement of their cause, shared with people his own age, non-family or not. What would happen when Merrell offered Daniel all that he’d so recently thought he had wanted—things Merrell had unthinkingly offered to Jet simply because Jet was stronger. Now Daniel was strong, too, and more Merrell’s creature than Jet could ever be. Jet didn’t want to think about that yet. He carefully avoided merging with Daniel’s elemental form so Daniel wouldn’t catch his thoughts. One crisis at a time.

Ballind seemed as quiet as usual. Jet took back his physical form on the steps of the apartment building, and Daniel re-formed beside him. They glanced at each other, then took the stairs a few at a time. Daniel knew where they hid the spare key. He retrieved it from the loose stone by the windowsill in the common hallway and unlocked the apartment door. They both cloaked themselves in shadow and slowly eased the door open.

Pat sat tensely at the small kitchen table and stared at the door which had seemingly opened and closed on its own. “Is that you, Jet?” he asked in a low voice, leaving Jet to wonder who else he thought it might be. Jet and Daniel materialized, and Pat slumped into his seat with a relieved sigh.

"I didn’t know what to do.” Pat gestured to the kitchen drawer which hid the machine he used to communicate with the Sons of Men. “I contacted Ben just like we talked about, but . . .”

“But what?”

“I think Ben might have contacted the Enforcer!” Pat blurted. “Because they’re here—in Ballind.”

“Who? The Enforcer?”

Pat nodded glumly. “I didn’t do it—I told you I wouldn’t deal with Family. But when nobody answered me, I thought something had happened to you. Next thing I know, Ballind is full of enforcers looking for you.”

“What about Ben?”

“He’s on his way, too.”

“Where is the Enforcer?”

Pat shrugged. “Everywhere. He’s got his men going door to door. The King is here, too.”

King Roy? Jet and Daniel glanced at each other. Why would their father have accompanied Merrell? Usually one would remain behind so that both royals were not away from Darcy at the same time. “We’d better find out what they want,” Jet said.

“What they want? They want you!” Pat said. “The whole town is shut down. Everybody’s afraid to come out of their houses.”

And Ricky was driving right into it.

“Let’s go,” Jet said to Daniel. “If they see we’re both alive, maybe we can stop them before they do something stupid.”

“Unless Ben told them about Aylard,” Pat muttered.

That’s what Jet was afraid of. Merrell might not be satisfied with just getting the two royal heirs back unharmed. If he knew Aylard had betrayed the Family, he would insist on going after the Northern base. And if he recognized Ricky as one of the non-family flyers who had attacked Darcy, he would show no mercy. “Let’s hurry.”

It wasn’t difficult to spot the enforcers now that they knew what to look for. They were stationed on every street corner, hidden in shadow. To Jet, this was very familiar. “Hey,” he said, tapping an enforcer on the shoulder.

The man spun around, clearly shocked. “Jet—I mean, Prince Roderick!” He spotted Daniel and his eyes widened. “Prince Daniel. You’re safe.”

Jet knew him. He remembered this enforcer from their time in Parrion, although he couldn’t recall the man’s name. It was a shame. The enforcers were cousins, after all. “Can you bring us to Merrell?” Jet asked. Other enforcers had noticed them and were making their way over, shadows sloughing off them as they came.

“Yeah, I heard Uncle T is looking for us,” Daniel said, grinning. “Was he worried we wouldn’t come back?”

That hit too close to home. Jet glanced sharply at Daniel, wondering what he was up to.

The enforcer, a cousin who, if he’d been born with just a touch more elemental power, could have been one of the royals like them instead of one of Merrell’s hand-picked subordinates, smiled uneasily. “Glad to see you’re unharmed, Prince Daniel. Your Uncle and the King are over here.” The enforcer began leading the two Princes down the deserted street, with an entourage of other enforcers flanking them. It reminded Jet a little too strongly of his first encounter with Merrell back in Low City.

In an upstairs room surrounded by old books, Merrell raised bleary eyes. “You’re not dead.” His eyes grazed Daniel. “You either. Good.” He put his head back down.

“Why would you think I’m dead?” Jet asked. “You sent me here. I found Daniel. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

King Roy came out of a back room. He stopped abruptly when he saw his two sons, and his face broke out into a relieved smile, which quickly faded as he looked past them. “Where’s Aylard?”

“Aylard—he’s still negotiating with the Sons of Men,” Jet replied, hoping it was so.

Merrell banged his fist against the table, head still down. “Don’t give me that. I know. Aylard has betrayed us from the start. He never had any intention of making peace with the Family.” He pinned Jet with a hard stare. “How did you get Daniel away from them?”

So Ben really must have contacted Merrell. How desperate was he to involve the Family, Jet wondered. “Ben?” he asked, just to be sure.

“I should have killed him when I had the chance,” Merrell muttered. “He played a dangerous game against both sides.”

“Ben’s a good man,” Jet murmured.

“He certainly trusts you,” Merrell said with a sigh. He pushed back his seat. “Did you kill Aylard at least?”

Jet shook his head. “You know he can’t be killed.”

“Release, then, whatever you call it. Tell me you took care of him.”

Daniel spoke up. “Jet did better than that. He taught me how to do what he and Aylard can do.” He grinned. “That’s right! I can’t be killed anymore either!”

Jet barely avoided rolling his eyes. Daniel just had to tell them his secret. He wondered what Merrell would do with the information. Now that Daniel could transform into an Elemental too, he really didn’t need Jet anymore.

“Come here.” Merrell beckoned Daniel closer. When the boy was within arm’s reach, Merrell cuffed him on the side of the head. “Hmph,” he said, settling back. “He should have taught you some common sense to go along with it.”

Jet looked up in surprise at the oblique compliment. At least he thought it was a compliment. Daniel grinned unrepentantly. King Roy, however, had remained curiously silent throughout the whole exchange. Jet found himself searching his father’s face for signs of what he was thinking, but all he saw was a weary joy and relief at seeing both his sons safe and sound. Even Merrell seemed relieved rather than angry.

Between them, Jet and Daniel told Merrell and the King the whole story, including Aylard’s betrayal and Reg and Daniel’s plan. “So the non-family boy is part of your group now?” Merrell asked. “And Patrick, the boy we caught in Salter? He’s in it too? And Ben Reaves, who is a leader among the non-family? They are all your followers now?”

Jet reddened. “I wouldn’t exactly call them followers,” he mumbled, but Daniel laughed.

“Yes, they are. And so am I.”

Jet felt guilty for having doubted his brother’s motives.

“Should I be worried?”

“Yes!” Daniel said, still laughing.

“No!” Jet answered quickly.

“You should take over.” King Roy spoke abruptly. “You have the trust of Family and non-family. You might be able to protect them all and keep Attania from crumbling into so much dust.”

Merrell regarded him thoughtfully, but for once didn’t offer an opinion. Instead, he asked Jet, “What do you think we should do now?”

Jet eyed Merrell warily, suspicious that the older man might be joking, but when Merrell continued to regard him steadily, he said, “Solve the problem. No more fighting. I can handle Aylard if it comes to it. Will you and your enforcers at least listen to the Sons of Men? As Family, we have abilities they don’t have, and we can use those abilities to help Attania prosper. None of us need to die.” He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what I think.”

“All right, then.” Merrell stood up. “Call your friends here. I want to meet them.”

It took a while, but the enforcers rounded up Ricky as he arrived in Ballind, and followed Daniel’s directions to fetch Pat from his apartment. They brought both young men to the room Merrell and the King had appropriated. Patrick stared at the Enforcer fearfully until the man finally snapped, “Jet is more powerful than all of us put together, and you’re still afraid of me? Get over it. We have work to do.”

When he put it that way, it made sense. Pat relaxed slightly, although it took a lot to overcome his lifelong fear of enforcers. Both boys were less intimidated by the King himself. Ricky used his portable communicator to let Reg know everything was okay and that they were returning to the base. He wasn’t able to communicate much more than that, so Reg had no idea exactly who was returning with him. He used the communicator to reach Ben, also. Ben was on his way to Ballind. Ricky’s message to him was simple: Come to the Northern Quadrant. All is well. Ben wasn’t on the Family’s side, although he had betrayed the Sons of Men to the Family for Jet’s sake. Hopefully, the men under Ben’s command would be loyal to Ben, and thus loyal to Jet, rather than to Aylard. Merrell was trusting Jet in this: no more fighting.

Ricky led the convoy of Family vehicles across the snow. The sleek sedans were not particularly suited to the rough, snow-covered tracks, but having Family who could utilize wind and smooth over rough roads helped mitigate the difficulties so they arrived at the small town at the far north of Archer’s Cave without incident. Jet and Daniel had gone on ahead to inform Archer and Aylard of the impending visit.

When the convoy arrived, they were met with an army of Sons of Men, most of whom were workers hastily assembled from the nearby factories, Aylard, Archer and his elite soldiers, and Jet, Daniel and Reg.

“King Roy.” Archer stepped forward and greeted the King. “Welcome. This meeting is long overdue.”

“Yes.” The King acknowledged Archer with a slight nod of his head. “Had I known what was at stake, I might have attempted to resolve this sooner. However,” his attempt at a smile ended with a slight grimace, “if I had known about you sooner, I probably would have wiped you and all you hold dear off the face of Attania. Be glad you met my son instead of me.”

Taken aback, Archer struggled for a reply. Jet was startled by his father’s frankness. It wasn’t like him, but then again, he was the King and had faced situations like this one all his life. King Roy had destroyed Parrion. He had wiped out entire towns in the West not that long ago. Merrell was the Enforcer, but the King was the most powerful elemental-user in the land. Or he had been, until Jet came along.

The King turned to Aylard. “And you. I would destroy you if I could for what you have done to the Family for all these years. However, Roderick tells me you cannot die. We are your own kind, and yet you turn against us at every opportunity. So I leave it to my son to decide what to do with you.” King Roy raised his voice so all the Sons of Men could hear him. “Aylard First is one of us, yet he leads the Sons of Men. That gives me hope. Roderick Estee is my son and chosen heir. He will lead not only Family but all of you for the good of Attania. As of this moment, I declare him King.”

There was a stunned silence. Then, ragged cheering broke out from the rear of the crowd, where the factory workers had assembled. “King Roderick!” they shouted.

Someone else shouted, “King Jet!” and the cry was picked up until it became a roar. Only Archer, Merrell and Aylard remained silent. Jet looked to Merrell, who gave him a faint smile.

King Roy wasn’t done. He drew Aylard to one side and spoke quietly to him, unheard by anyone else in the commotion. “I want you to release me,” he said.

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