The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 5

Jet walked briskly across the subway concourse as if he belonged among the swiftly moving commuters on their way to work. He even bought a ticket. Nobody stopped him as he boarded a train and rode the subway across Matick Island. At each stop, Jet observed suited Family patrolling the platform, not even trying to blend in. So it wasn’t just Ben’s particular stop that they had been searching. Jet had been worried it might have been.

He got off in the main part of the city near the library, walking slowly enough so that any Family who wanted to stop him would have the chance. But nobody did. In this part of the city, his dark hair and pale skin did not stand out nearly as much as on the other side. As his hair dried, it stuck straight out again, taking away from the look he was trying to achieve, but that was just as well. Maybe he had achieved it too well. Nobody was paying any attention to him at all.

“Excuse me.” Jet tapped one of the suited men on the shoulder. He pointed at the library building across the street. “Can you tell me what all the fuss is about?” There was no fuss, nothing visible, anyway. Suited Family were stationed like this man, on nearby corners. Inside the library, more Family waited, pretending to browse the stacks. As if a thief would go back to the scene of the crime. Jet smiled to himself. And yet he had done just that, hadn’t he?

The man narrowed his eyes, squinting suspiciously at Jet. He gathered a handful of shadow and threw it behind Jet. It would, at a word from the man, become a prison to bind Jet to the spot where he stood. “Who are you?” the man asked.

“I’m not a thief,” Jet said, swallowing his smile as the man stiffened in realization. When he spoke the word to bind the shadow tight to Jet’s own, Jet let him, content to see where this would go. The man called out to his comrades, and with incredible swiftness they poured out from the surrounding streets and the inside of the building to surround Jet. Several of them were shadow-users like the one who had ‘caught’ Jet. They added their shadows to the ones which imprisoned Jet. A few were light-users, and Jet squinted from the bright lights that were directed his way.

“Bring him.” One man, tall like most of the Family, gave the order then strode away. Jet felt the shadows gather around him and he was lifted from his feet and borne along the sidewalk towards the library. Jet wasn’t surprised to find himself once again in the same locked room that was open only to certain high-ranking Family. These were high-ranking, all right, and not afraid to use their various talents. Jet was impressed.

The tall man who had given the order sat at the head of the long table where not that long ago Jet had sat reading forbidden books. The books were all gone now. At a gesture from the man, the shadows withdrew from Jet and so did the men who wielded them, leaving Jet and the tall man alone.

“Now, who are you?”

Jet sat. “My name? Jet. I want to know why you’re looking for me.”

“Jet.” The man contemplated that for a while. “You are a thief. You have stolen knowledge from the Family. I want to know how you did it. And why you came here today.”

“I told you.”

The man suddenly shot a burst of flame at Jet’s face, unsurprised when Jet, startled, immediately directed it off to the sides and dampened it with shadow. “So, wind and shadow I see. What else can you do?” He reached out to the light streaming in from the high window and fashioned it into bright blades which he threw at Jet.

Jet jumped out of his chair, knocking it over. “What are you trying to do? Kill me!” he shouted. The blades stuck in the wall and slowly dissolved back into light again.

“What? No deflection this time? Can you wield light?” The tall man let more sunbeams stream between his fingers to pool liquidly on the tabletop. He waved his hand over them and they dissipated.

Jet clenched his jaw. How much to let this guy know? Then again, what was the purpose of his coming here if he was going to be cautious? He reached over and grabbed a stream of light, spinning it into a rope. He tossed the rope to the tall man, shrugging.

“Excellent! So you control light, dark, wind. Is that all? No, I don’t think so.” Beaming, the man waved Jet back to his seat. “So who are you really?”

“Who are you?” Jet countered, picking up his chair and sitting back down.

“My name is Thomas Merrell,” the man said, as if expecting Jet to recognize it. When Jet didn’t say anything, he continued. “Where did you come from—Jet?” He paused deliberately over Jet’s name. “Who are your parents? Where do you live? Are there any more like you at home?” He smiled and leaned forward with predatory interest. “What is your real name—Roderick?”

Jet’s eyes flicked up at that. “Jet,” he replied evenly. Long ago, he might have been Roddy, but he’d never heard of Roderick.

Thomas Merrell steepled his fingers and peered over them at Jet. “Come now, you are clearly talented. Where did you get your skills if not from the nobility? Where is your father then? Your mother?”

“They’re dead,” said Jet, wanting to get off this track.

“Then who taught you to wield shadow and light? Who taught you to control the wind?”

“I taught myself,” Jet muttered, to the other man’s raised eyebrows. “Why else do you think I came here? So I could learn how to wield the elements on my own.”

Thomas Merrell’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Elements, is it? Why, indeed, could you enter this particular study room? You never did tell me how you managed to get in.”

And Jet wasn’t about to now, either. He gave the older man a dark look and said pointedly, “I came today because I heard the Family was looking for me. So here I am. What do you want with me? I didn’t steal your precious books.”

“No, only the knowledge contained within them,” Thomas said. “That knowledge is forbidden except to the royal Family. The penalties for anyone else stealing this knowledge are severe. So I’ll ask you one more time. Are you Roderick Estee, son of Roy Estee, Attania’s current King?”

“No,” Jet replied shortly. This was stupid. He shouldn’t have bothered coming here. He pushed away from the table abruptly.

“Are you leaving?”

Jet stared at Thomas Merrell. “Is that a problem?”

“It is if you are who I think you are.”

“I’m not.”

Thomas Merrell smiled grimly and stood up. He was tall, taller than Jet. He drew shadow around himself to make himself look even more menacing, but Jet knew that trick. He could do it too. Jet grabbed the doorknob.

Merrell threw a net of shadow over Jet. It settled on him like a heavy weight, blocking sight but not sound. Jet moved to throw it off but found he couldn’t. Merrell’s shadow was stronger than Jet’s. He tore at it with wind but the shadow would not move. Jet was well and truly caught.

He did not want to use his last trick and fade away into shadow himself. As far as Jet had been able to discover, that was not a trick that any of the Family, save him, could do. Jet waited to see what Thomas Merrell would do next.

“I see you have a lot to learn.” Merrell’s voice sounded like it was right over Jet, although he still could not see a thing. “Come with me to the Capitol. We have schools that can teach you what you lack.”

Gradually the pall of shadow lifted and Jet got ready to bolt. Merrell chuckled and stepped back. Wary for tricks, Jet opened the door and stepped out, startling the Family guards who waited there. At a signal from Merrell, however, they moved away and let Jet pass.

“Think about it, Jet,” Merrell called after him. “I’ll be in Low City for another week. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

They were going to let him go. Jet moved quickly out of the library, very aware that Family watched him as he made his way back to the subway. He made sure he got off a few stops away, and spent the rest of the day upside, in the Family’s part of Low City. The Family who were trailing him were not locals. More likely, if they were Merrell’s men, they came from Darcy also.

Jet took it as a good sign that Merrell hadn’t pursued the ‘severe penalties’ for breaking into the Royal Family’s study room in Low City. That meant Merrell thought he was the missing Prince, but Jet could work with that. He should just forget the whole thing and disappear into the subway until Darcy’s Family forgot about him. Still, the idea of going to an actual school, and a school which would teach him elemental magic at that, was tempting.

Jet deliberately avoided going back to Ben’s part of town. He stayed away from Doll’s too. He didn’t want to drag them into his troubles if he could help it. But he needed time to think. Ducking into a public restroom at a small park uptown, Jet made sure no Family had followed him before he let go of his physical body and became shadow. He flowed across the concrete floor and out across the patchy grass of the park, keeping low to the ground as the deepening shadows of evening hid him completely. When he had the chance, he slid into the nearest subway tunnel through a grate in the sidewalk and followed the tunnels all the way home.

Home for Jet was a room far beneath the tunnels themselves, one he had carved out for himself when he was still very young. It held all his treasures, and was quite comfortable despite being so far underground. The only drawback was that nobody except Jet could ever go there. Only someone who could let go of their physical selves and become the wind, or the dark, could enter Jet’s domain. Once it had been his escape; now it was his haven.

The problem with safe havens is that they were very, very lonely.

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