The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 6

Jet’s home beneath the subway tunnels was comfortable, built of shadows and the faint light that filtered in from the grate that served as Jet’s front door. Over the years he had woven light with dark to create a soft bed, a place to sit, even a table where he cached a collection of books, pens and paper.

This was Jet’s haven, his safe place when the world above became too much. When he was small, he used to escape his persecutors here, especially Box Man, who wanted Jet for more than just the food he could steal off him. Box Man could not follow him here—nobody could.

There was moisture enough in the air that Jet could wring out for a quick wash, but he seldom bothered. The wind brought him fresh breezes and a hint of conversation from above when he desired it. Food he had been able to steal or get from Ben whenever he needed it. Until recently, it had been enough.

Lately, however, Jet had felt restless. He shadowed Family in the subway as they went about their daily business, curious to find out what the differences were between them. They rarely used their elemental abilities, unlike Jet, who used them as naturally as breathing.

Jet was not fully convinced that he was one of them, but he shared more with the Family he observed than he did with Ben or any of the other non-family he knew. None of the non-family could use the elements at all and, except for Ben, they usually became frightened when they saw Jet use his abilities.

So Jet began following Family, seeing where they went, what they did, how they belonged. He erred badly in one instance. The night he had shown up in the middle of a basketball game, walking out of the shadows into the center court, he’d heard the gasps of surprise from the mostly Family crowd. He hadn’t even changed his form, merely gathered shadows around himself to remain unnoticed until he shed them, a trick any shadow-user could do. Security immediately tried to apprehend him, so Jet wove shadow about himself to more startled gasps from the crowd. Family did not use their abilities in public.

Perhaps cloaking himself in shadow and walking out into the middle of a basketball game hadn’t been the smartest idea. Jet had shocked the mostly Family spectators and brought the game to a screeching halt. Jet’s notoriety had started then and led to the Family from Darcy being sent to investigate. Now his habit of visiting the off-limits room at the library would have to end, or Family like Thomas Merrell would come after him.

Jet reached invisible fingers through the small openings in the grate and squeezed himself through, gathering his form around him on the other side. He flopped down on his shadow bed and stretched out, pillowing his head on his arms. Would that be so bad? Merrell had invited him to the Capitol. There were schools there which would teach him how to use his abilities. Merrell had said so. Of course, that would mean admitting he was one of them, but deep down Jet had always known it. As long as he wasn’t this dead Prince, he didn’t really mind. Going to Darcy would give him the chance to find out what else he could do, and if any other Family could do the things he could.

Jet thought of Doll, who had lost her library job because of him. If he left Low City, he probably wouldn’t ever see her again. He would have liked to see where their relationship would lead, but it was probably better if he stayed away from her. Doll was a pleasant diversion, but she was innocent and Jet had lost that kind of innocence long ago.

Ben had taken Jet under his wing with the understanding that Jet was closer to the wind he could sometimes become than to a boy who needed nurturing. Jet came and went as he pleased, and Ben knew better than to expect him at any given time. Often Jet would disappear for weeks.

Sighing, Jet turned over, flicking a finger towards the softly glowing ceiling to extinguish the light. Encased in darkness, Jet considered his options. Stay, and remain just as he was now. Or go, and risk losing whatever freedom he still had. It was the thought of going to school which pulled at him, Everything Jet had learned in his life thus far he had taught himself—or stolen in snatches from books. He wanted to learn so much more.

Sleep came slowly as Jet sifted through his emotions. When he woke late the next day, Jet traced his way back to the library, remaining unobtrusive but not trying to hide either. Family from Darcy remained a heavy presence throughout Low City. Maybe it wasn’t Jet they were looking for after all. Family tended to keep a low profile except when there was a crisis of some sort. Maybe something was happening in the world that had nothing to do with Jet. Feeling slightly relieved, Jet entered the library.

“Where’s Merrell?” Jet asked a well-dressed Family man who pretended to be looking at books. “Upstairs?” Having effectively announced himself, Jet ignored the man’s instinctive grab for light and took the stairs two at a time, using wind to give himself a little boost. The Family man now held a sword of light but he did not try to stop Jet. He spoke into the lapel of his expensive suit.

When Jet reached the locked room where he’d previously met with Merrell, the door was open and Merrell was just coming around the corner of the long table, which was piled high with books, some already in boxes, the others waiting to be packed.

“Ah, you’ve returned,” Merrell said with a faintly self-satisfied smile. “Have you thought about what I said?”

“What’s all this?” Jet indicated the empty shelves and the stack of boxes.

“We’re closing this location,” Merrell said. “My son was the only other Family to use it, and he’s been recalled to Darcy already. We won’t leave these books here where outsiders might get their hands on them.” He looked pointedly at Jet, who flushed.

“I thought you said I was one of you.”

“I said you are Family, but only the royal line has access to this level of information. Or do you have something else to tell me—Roderick?”

“My name’s Jet,” Jet said automatically, although Roderick was too close to Roddy for comfort. He shook his head to dispel that thought. He couldn’t be their lost Princeling. Jet’s eyes narrowed. “Royal line? Your son—then you--?”

Merrell laughed. “I’m not the King, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m his enforcer. I’m also his brother.”

Close enough. The man’s son must have been the one Doll had seen. Jet wouldn’t mind getting a look at Merrell’s royal son. “Can I still go to Darcy even if I’m not this Roderick?” Jet asked. “To that school?”

Merrell’s smile widened. “I invited you. I was ready to wait the entire week if I had to, but I’m glad you came of your own volition. We will leave tonight. Come.” He put an arm around Jet’s shoulders, making him uncomfortable as he led him back to the main floor. “My driver will take you home so you can pack.”

Pack? Jet pulled away and stared at Merrell in dismay. Pack what? Jet had the clothes on his back, and Ben’s shoes, plus his dirty clothes he had left at Ben’s shop. Whenever he needed new ones, he just took them from a store. “No, that’s all right. I have to stop and pick up a few things first,” Jet said, thinking rapidly. “Can I meet you back here in a few hours?”

Merrell didn’t like Jet’s response. His lips thinned and Jet was certain the man was going to tell him to forget the whole thing, but Merrell gave a clipped nod. “Two hours,” he said. “Or I’ll come looking for you myself.”

Jet nodded and ran down the street towards the nearest subway entrance, not daring to shift form or shadow until he was well away from any prying Family eyes. He made his way quickly to Ben’s shop. In the middle of the afternoon rush, it was crowded with Family and non-family customers alike. Jet slid behind the counter and helped Ben catch up on his orders. For a time, it was too busy to even talk. Eventually, the crowd thinned out and Jet followed the last two customers out, pulling down the gate and locking the door behind him.

“Hey! It’s not closing time yet,” Ben protested.

Jet had used up most of his first hour. He didn’t doubt Merrell would come looking for him, and he had no desire to lead the Family to Ben. “I’m going to Darcy,” he told Ben. “I need to pack.”

Sobered, Ben sat down quietly at one of the empty side tables. “Are they making you go? What did they say to you?”

“No, it’s my idea. I met a man, Thomas Merrell. He invited me to Darcy to go to school, and then he let me go. I thought about it, and I want to go with him. I have to meet him in about an hour. But I need to pack something first. What am I supposed to pack, Ben?” Jet asked almost desperately.

Ben’s jaw dropped open in astonishment. “Thomas Merrell? The Thomas Merrell?”

“He said he was the King’s brother.”

“And he let you walk away? Do you realize how lucky you are? Thomas Merrell is the law of the land! If Merrell was after you, you never had a chance.” Ben looked around wildly, as if expecting to see the Family enforcer standing right behind him in his locked shop.

“I don’t think he was after me, particularly,” Jet said. Otherwise, why would the man have been so nice, when all was said and done? He could have kept Jet wrapped up in shadow instead of letting him go. He didn’t know the shadow would not have held Jet for long. “I think he was in Low City for something else, and I just sort of got in the way. He thinks I’m Family, thought maybe I was this long-lost kid, but I told him I wasn’t, and he still invited me to school in Darcy. I want to go. I’ll be safe enough, Ben. You know me and what I can do. I want to at least see.”

Ben frowned doubtfully. “I don’t know,” he said. “Merrell is powerful. What does he want with you if you’re not one of theirs?”

Jet grinned a little too tightly. “I know how to handle myself,” he replied. “Now, will you help me or not?”

Ben sighed. “Wait here,” he said. “I have a suitcase at home you can borrow, and I’ll throw in a few changes of clothes and some necessities too. We’re close to the same size, I think. I’m giving you some money, too. If things get rough, you call me. I’ll come get you.”

From Darcy? The thought was enough. Jet smiled at his old friend. “Sure.”

While Ben was gone, Jet slipped away and got the few books and pencils he called his own from his underground room. It was a slow process, as he had to carry them out piece by piece and then remain corporeal to transport them back to Ben’s place. But he didn’t want to leave them behind. They were silly things, really. Not books on the elements or Family, but storybooks written for children. Jet had read them so often that some of them were falling apart, but to Jet they were precious. He put them in the bottom of the suitcase when Ben brought it.

Jet took the subway back to the library stop, using Ben’s money to purchase a token so he could haul his new suitcase with him. Ben had insisted he keep the black shoes and forget about bringing his smelly old work boots with him. Pleased that he had managed to pack something on such short notice, Jet approached the shiny black car which was parked in front of the library. Two other identical cars were parked right behind the first one. Jet hesitated.

A dark window opened soundlessly in the first car. “Get in.” Merrell’s voice, full of command, drifted out. Jet got in. “That’s all you’re bringing? Never mind, sit down.”

Uneasy, Jet slid into the seat nearest Merrell. Another Family guard took his suitcase from him and placed it in the trunk. The man’s face was impassive. “Is the rest of your, ah, business in Low City finished?” Jet asked.

Merrell’s lips quirked. “Yes, yes it is,” he said. “Relax, Jet. It’s a long trip back to Darcy. Have you eaten yet?” He snapped his fingers in a show of light, brightening up the interior of the car as Jet felt it start to move. He had never been inside a car before. It wasn’t that much different than a subway train. Quieter. Cleaner.

Merrell opened a little door built into the front of the car and pulled out a container filled with food. Jet could get used to this lifestyle. He eagerly reached forward to grab a roll. He was looking forward to going to Darcy.

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