The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 4

Ben woke Jet up when he came in around five in the morning.

“What the hell is that!” Ben gestured at the button-down checkered shirt and matching pants in soft gray flannel that Jet came out of the little bathroom in.

“Sleep clothes—pajamas,” Jet corrected himself.

“Since when do you wear pajamas?”

“Since now,” Jet answered. “I have other clothes too.”

Ben raised his eyebrows but refrained from asking the obvious. Jet busied himself changing into his new clothes. He slicked down his spiky hair with water until it lay flat against his scalp, and put on a pair of glasses.

“Your shoes don’t match,” Ben pointed out.

Jet still wore his scruffed up work boots and Doll’s father’s white socks. He frowned. “I didn’t think of that.”

“Wait here.” Ben went into his office and rummaged around in a box underneath his small desk, finally producing a pair of dusty black shoes. “You’ll have to wear them without socks, but these will go with the outfit better.” He gave Jet a searching look. “Should I ask what you have planned?”

Jet shook his head. “No, but I’ll tell you anyway. I’m going to talk to the Family.”

Ben sighed, and pulled up a chair. It was still early; the gate was still halfway down and the first subway commuters hadn’t passed by yet. “Before you do, I think we need to talk. How much do you know about the Family?”

“I know what I see, what I’ve heard.” Jet pointed with one hand out towards the subway concourse and the other towards the TV above Ben’s lunch counter. “What everybody knows.”

“Then how much do you remember from when you were little? Before you came to the subway,” Ben clarified. “You keep saying you’re not one of the Family, but you obviously are.”

“I’m not that missing kid,” Jet muttered, but this time he didn’t deny being part of the Family.

“How do you know?” Ben persisted.

“I know! Okay?” Jet scowled. In the days and weeks when he had first run away from Janna, the news had been full of the little Princeling who had been kidnapped and presumed murdered. Jet knew he hadn’t been kidnapped; he had run away of his own volition. Those first few weeks had been awful. Jet had changed his mind almost immediately and wanted nothing more than to go home, but going home was impossible. The subways were filled with armed men who grabbed any child they saw, even if that child was with his parents, even if the child was a girl, and did something with their eyes to make the child scream piteously. Jet had hidden for weeks. He had tried to go out into the streets above at one point, but not long after there was a tremendous conflagration on the surface, so much so that Jet felt the vibrations far below in his hidey hole under the tracks. When he finally ventured out, the city was on fire. He didn’t know until years later that it had been the other side of the city, across the river from where he used to live. He remembered the smoke, the horrible smells, and the screams most of all. For a long time he didn’t dare come out of the subway.

Over the years, the burned part of the city had been rebuilt good as new, and nobody mentioned the fire or the lives lost anymore. Talk of the missing Prince died down too, except for the occasional news program. Jet had caught a few of those here and there. He saw footage of the King, a tall, dark-haired man who did not look nearly as distraught as the woman who was always filmed by his side, a woman who was not his mother. Nor were the children she had gathered around her his siblings. Jet had no brothers or sisters. “So you see—I can’t be him,” Jet concluded.

Ben shook his tawny head. “Let me tell you about the Family,” he began, ignoring how Jet crossed his arms and jutted out his chin, prepared to argue. “Just listen. The King of all the Family is the most powerful elemental user of all. He is like you, Jet. He can use more than one of the elements.” Ben held up his hand at Jet’s protest. “I know, there are other Family who also can do this—I’m not saying you have to be his son. Just listen. As I said, the King is King over all. Naturally, he can’t be in all places at once, so he has his main residence in Darcy, the government seat. But in every big city across the country, the King has a house. And a wife. And sometimes a family. It just so happened that the family he had in Low City was shattered when his young son was kidnapped. What you saw on TV, what we all saw, was the official wife, the one from Darcy, who is the recognized mother of all the King’s offspring. The children you saw may have been her own, or more likely they were promising youngsters from some of the other cities. They were all older than you, weren’t they?”

Jet nodded reluctantly. He didn’t like this train of thought. At all. “What happened to the mother—the real one, I mean?” he asked.

Ben shrugged his shoulders. “We commoners aren’t privileged to have that information,” he said, “but I heard a woman from Low City whom the King was known to visit was somehow disgraced and lost her house and her position. Maybe her head, too. I don’t know.”

Jet had been so taken by Ben’s story that he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor mother of the missing Prince. He didn’t think the woman he remembered as his mother could be her, though. His mother had been very self-assured and would have seen Jet’s disappearance as nothing more than a nuisance. He had thought of Janna many times since the day he had run away; he hadn’t thought about his mother even once.

“It still couldn’t have been me,” Jet said triumphantly. “I wasn’t kidnapped. I ran away.”

Ben’s eyes widened, but he only remarked, “Fine, so maybe you’re not the King’s son, but you are one of the Family.”

“Maybe.” For Jet, it was a big concession. He could do things no other Family member could do, like go incorporeal. What if he was a new kind of creature, not Family but something similar? “Have you ever heard of Family who could slip through cracks in walls?” Ben knew some of what Jet could do. Jet wasn’t giving away any secrets here, and anyway, he trusted Ben.

“They don’t exactly go around advertising their talents to us commoners,” Ben replied. It was the second time he had referred to non-family as commoners. “Keeps us in line better not knowing. But I do know that the King trains his more ‘talented’ children at the seat in Darcy. The one with the most skill will eventually succeed him as King. So, do any of those immensely talented elemental-users have the same abilities as you do? I have no idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. You shouldn’t be, either. Jet, even if you aren’t the King’s natural son, once they realize what you’re capable of, the King very well might say you are anyway—or kill you outright to prevent a threat to his own children. Are you sure you want to take that risk by presenting yourself to those Family out there who are hunting you?”

Jet snorted. “I wasn’t planning on telling them everything I can do,” he said. “Just find out what they want.” He stood, brushing the wrinkles out of his new clothes. “How do I look?”

“Like one of the Family.” Ben grinned uneasily. “Jet, don’t forget that what you do might come back to bite the rest of us.”

“Give me a little credit,” Jet said. “I won’t betray you.”

“There’s nothing to betray,” Ben said sadly. “Sooner or later people will put two and two together and figure out who your friends are. Just by being your friend we’re targets. To them, we’re expendable.”

Them. The Family. Jet couldn’t wrap his thoughts around it. He didn’t want to be a part of something like that, but if he was, he would use it to his own advantage. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck,” said Ben, following Jet to the front of the shop. He lifted the iron gate all the way up and flicked on the lights so the shop’s interior blended into the harsher light of the subway concourse. When he looked back to give Jet one last piece of advice, the boy was gone.

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