The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 8

“Hold flame.” Macek demonstrated by manifesting a teardrop shaped fire in the palm of one hand. His three students immediately did the same, and Jet made one too a heartbeat later, frowning at the pointless exercise. “Yours is too big. Contain it,” Macek told Jet.

That was a game Jet could play easily enough. He damped his flame to the size of a pinhead, thinking control was Macek’s goal. His fellow students glanced worriedly at their teacher. Macek glared at Jet. “Can’t you do even this much right?”

Jet let flame coat his entire body until he was outlined in glowing orange and his spiky hair threw off little sparks.

The three younger boys gasped and fell back, one tripping over his own feet to sprawl on the practice room floor. He scurried to the wall without looking back. All three lost control of their own flames in the confusion. Two flames winked out completely; the third boy from breakfast let his flame shoot towards the ceiling. “Aah!” he yelled, as the heat seared his own hand. He shook his hand, trying to extinguish the flame, but the motion just made it worse.

“Oh, for the—“ Macek broke off. He grabbed shadow and threw it at the boy’s hand.

In the meantime, Jet had let his own flame die out and he stood, subdued, in his place. “Are you all right?” he asked the little boy with the burned hand. The boy just glared at him on the verge of tears.

Macek wrapped a compress made of shadow around the boy’s hand. “Look,” he said to Jet. “If you’re going to stay here, you need to get something straight. Using the elements is not allowed outside of the practice rooms. And in this room, you do as I say. I don’t care how great you think you are, or my father thinks you are. In here, you are a beginner. You see what can happen otherwise. Tommy here got hurt because of you. Do you have any idea what would happen if we all just started using our elements any way we pleased?”

Jet had some idea. “We’d get sent to the beginner class?”

“You think you’re funny.”

Jet shrugged. “I’m sorry Tommy got hurt,” he said. “I didn’t understand. I thought I was coming here to learn more about the elements, not less. But I wouldn’t have let the flame get away from me. I’m not a beginner.”

“You are,” Macek said. “You’ve been rogue and out of control your entire life. It’s a wonder you haven’t been caught before now.”

Jet stiffened. Caught? He had come with Merrell voluntarily. Did they all think Merrell had forced him to come to Darcy? He would have to set them straight, but this was not the time. As long as Macek was answering questions, he’d try another instead. “What do you mean none of you use your abilities outside of the practice rooms? What’s the point, then?”

“The point is we have them. We are the elite among the Family. Well, the rest of us are. You’re still an unknown. Someday we will lead this country because we are able to control the elements. But the key word is control. At Arden we learn control.” Macek bent to inspect Tommy’s hand. He replaced his shadow bandage and said, “Line up again. Let’s continue.”

Jet learned the other boys were John Graves, Mattie Pomeroy and Charles Estee. Tommy was a Merrell, like Macek. Brothers? Jet was almost afraid to ask. He studied the Estee boy. Was he the King’s son? The boy had dark hair and eyes, like Jet himself. So did half the Family. The other half differed only in eye color.

Jet followed along absently as Macek had them alternately increase the size of their flame and shrink it to almost nothing. A few times one or the other of the boys would douse his flame completely. Jet wondered if he had ever been so inept. If so, he couldn’t recall.

“Do you all have different mothers?” Jet asked.

“Silence!” Macek glared at Jet and his other three students copied him exactly.

Jet gritted his teeth and concentrated on the flame in his palm. How could Tommy have gotten burned by his own flame? It was a part of him. Jet opened his mouth to ask, but caught Macek’s grim expression and changed his mind. He’d find out soon enough if he stayed, which he wasn’t at all sure he was going to do anyway if this is what they would be doing every day. He kept his mouth shut and followed the exercises, but in his mind he sent his flame to burn the pants off Macek where he stood. Jet could do it, too, without harming a hair of the body beneath. Control. Ha! Jet snorted, drawing yet another angry look from the teacher and his three copycats.

They broke for lunch and Jet suddenly found himself alone as the rest of the group, including Macek, walked out the door without a word of explanation. Jet followed his nose to the dining room and sat at the same table as before. Lorra made a face, picked up her plate and moved to the other side of the table.

“Where do you get the food?” Jet asked. Nobody answered him. Tommy was busy telling their group about his injury, so Jet reached over and took Tommy’s plate and started eating.

“Hey! You can’t do that!” Tommy objected.

Jet chewed and swallowed before he replied. At least the food was good. “Then tell me where I can get my own.”

“Here.” Another boy, this one about Lorra’s age but easily as tall as Jet, stopped at Jet’s table and handed him a filled plate. “I got one for you. When you come in, you go through that door over there.” The boy pointed. “The food is on trays. You take a plate and help yourself. I’m surprised none of your table-mates explained it to you.”

I’m not, thought Jet. He took the plate the boy was offering and shoved Tommy’s half-eaten plate back to him. “Thanks.”

“I’m Daniel, by the way,” the boy said, taking the seat Lorra had vacated. “Daniel Estee.”

“Jet,” said Jet. Another Estee? Did that mean he was the King’s son too?

“That’s it? Just Jet?”

“Yeah.” Jet ate his lunch so he wouldn’t have to talk.

“He doesn’t know who his mother is,” Tommy supplied.

“Or his father,” Lorra said cuttingly.

Daniel grinned. “A mystery. How fun!”

“I know who my mother is,” Jet muttered, stung. He remembered what she looked like—just not her name. “Janna,” he said, to shut them up.

Daniel looked startled.

Macek stalked over to their table. Apparently as a teacher, he took his meals elsewhere. Jet craned his neck to see if Merrell or any of the other gray uniformed Family were around, but he didn’t see them. “Finish up,” Macek said shortly. “Practice in ten minutes.” He strode away as quickly as he had come.

“Great.” Jet shoveled the last of his lunch into his month and wondered if he had time to go back to his room. “Any toilets around here?” he asked Daniel, who laughed and showed Jet the way.

Afternoon practice turned out to be similar to morning practice except this time with shadow.

“All Family have one element they can control,” Macek said. “But the royal Families can control more than one. That’s what makes us royal.” Macek looked pointedly at Jet. “Or so we have always been taught. The more royal, the more elements we can control. You each need to discover which of the elements you have an affinity for. Not all of you will be able to handle shadow as well as fire, but shadow is one of the more common affinities. Watch.”

Macek grabbed a handful of shadow from seemingly out of nowhere and let it pool in his cupped hands, a puddle of visible darkness. “There can be no shadow without light. Look closely.” Macek moved his cupped hands towards a light fixture hanging from the ceiling. The shadow swelled and grayed but it didn’t disappear completely. He then blinked, and the overhead lights went out, plunging the room into total darkness. The cupped shadow in his hands seemed to merge with the general darkness. The lights came back on, and the shadow lay quiescent and dark in his hands again. “For most people, shadow is just shadow. It disappears in both bright light and in complete darkness. But for us, it is more. If we can touch it, we can control it, even if there is just a tiny bit of light to cast it.”

Jet wasn’t sure he believed Macek. In his secret hiding place under the subway tracks, there had been no light at all. Yet Jet had used shadow as well as light there. Was Macek saying the Family could not use an element unless it was already present? Jet frowned. Was that true? He tried to think how he did it, and he couldn’t say for sure Macek was wrong. But he had to be wrong! Jet could become his elements, not just use them.

They all sat in a circle on the practice room floor for the afternoon session. Macek started by passing his piece of shadow, which had form because he willed it, around the circle. “We manipulate our elements,” Macek said, “making them more than what they are. Our shadows don’t disappear unless we want them to. Even in darkness, we can hold the shape of our shadows and make them do what we desire.”

Oh, thought Jet, as Macek answered his unspoken question. The kid was a jerk, but he wasn’t completely useless.

“As long as there is some form of light, our shadows will remain.”

“Which is it?” Jet asked in exasperation. Macek’s shadow was now in his hands, and he braided it into a rope, unaware of the fascinated gazes of three impressionable boys. “Can we hold shadow even in darkness, or do we have to have some light for the shadow to remain?”

Macek snatched the rope of shadow back and angrily manipulated it back into an amorphous blob. “Both,” he said, which didn’t tell Jet anything.

They spent the rest of the afternoon trying to grab hold of shadows in various parts of the room. Charles Estee and John Graves got the hang of it almost immediately. Mattie Pomeroy, the youngest of the boys, had a little trouble until Jet showed him a trick. “You have to want it,” he whispered, reaching his hand behind Mattie’s ear. Jet showed him the tiny shadow that danced on his palm like a dark flame. Mattie’s eyes lit up, and he touched Jet’s little shadow flame gently. Jet spilled the shadow deliberately so Mattie would grab for it, smiling when the little boy grasped it tightly in his own hands. “See? You did it.”

The teacher was not pleased. “He needs to do it himself, not take one of yours.” Macek pinched the shadow in Mattie’s hands, making it go out. Macek pulled Jet aside. “If you hadn’t made Tommy lose control of his flame and burn his hand, I wouldn’t be showing them shadow this soon,” he murmured under his breath. “This really is a beginner class. Mattie only got here the day before you did. I’m going to ask you one more time not to do anything unless I tell you to. That includes showing these kids any of your untrained short-cuts.”

Got here from where? Jet didn’t ask. He didn’t think Macek would answer anyway.

Eventually they were released and Jet found his way back to the room Merrell had given him. He didn’t feel safe there, even with the key card. It wasn’t his room, this wasn’t his place, and these certainly weren’t his people, no matter what they thought. He lay down on the hotel-like bed and kicked off Ben’s dress shoes. The other kids had nicer clothes than he did, nicer shoes, too. Jet didn’t really care.

Someone knocked on his door. Jet opened it to find Daniel in the hallway with another plate of food. “You weren’t at supper,” Daniel said.

“How did you find my room?”

Grinning, Daniel invited himself in and set the plate down next to Jet’s TV. “Everybody knows where you are staying. Why weren’t you at supper?”

Jet shrugged, digging in to the food Daniel had brought.

“Starting tomorrow, you’ll sit at my table.”

“Sure.” Jet figured it couldn’t be any worse. If he was even still here tomorrow. Jet had plans to go out and do a little exploring tonight. “How far is Darcy from here?”

“You mean you didn’t see it when you drove in? Darcy is just over the mountain. You can see the city from the roof on a clear night. Do you want me to show you?”

“That’s allowed?”

Daniel laughed. “Of course not. But why should that stop us? Come on.”

Jet grabbed his key card, then stared when Daniel cloaked himself in shadow. “I thought we weren’t allowed to do that here,” he said.

“Oh Jet, Jet. You have a lot to learn.” The voice, coming out of shadow as it was, sounded amused.

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