The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 26

“It says here that none of us need our bodies.”

Jet lay on his stomach, the book King Roy had given him propped up in front of him. His back and shoulders were bare. Fingers of fire danced across his back.

Doll paused in her massage and leaned over. “Let me see.” She peered over his shoulder. “That might be true if we were Elementals,” she said, frowning as she muddled through the odd phrasing: “’Substance is but a seeming. What appears solid is in truth myriad tiny motes. What is between those motes is our realm. Substance is no barrier.’ What does that mean?”

Grinning, Jet rolled over, nearly knocking Doll off. He gripped her elbows when, embarrassed, she would have moved so she wasn’t sitting quite where she ended up. “You know what it means,” he said, letting his body melt into a flame which burned brightly but did not scorch the bedclothes because Jet didn’t want it to. Doll’s hands, still covered in her own bright flame, sank into what should have been Jet’s chest. His flames reached out to surround her and draw her down into them, and for a moment, Jet felt the core of her, pure flame to match his own.

But too soon, Doll pulled away and Jet let her, moving through so that Doll lay on her stomach on his bed and he straddled her, once more in human form. He rubbed her shoulders with nothing more than his actual hands. “See?” he whispered, leaning close to her ear. “Substance is no barrier.”

Doll twisted sideways to regard him. “To you, maybe,” she allowed with a tiny smile.

“To you, too,” Jet corrected her gently. “Didn’t you feel it?”

Doll had, if only for an instant. He saw it in her face, in the combined fear and wonder she wore there. Before fear could win out, he kissed her. “But this is nice, too. Substance definitely has its advantages.”

As always, when kissing progressed to a point where Jet would have liked to follow, Doll backed away. “Not now,” she murmured as they lay as close as two bodies of substance could be with only a thin layer of clothes between them—hers—Jet was still naked from the waist up. “I’d better get back to school. It’s late.”

Sighing, Jet let her up and put King Roy’s book back on the shadow shelf above his bed. He had gone to see Doll directly after leaving the King’s compound and his prisoner-charges, mostly to make sure she was still all right and that Merrell had brought her home as he had said. Jet had not taken no for an answer and insisted that Doll accompany him back to Arden. After the day they had both had, she agreed. How they ended up in Jet’s bed was still unclear to either one of them. It had started out with reading. Jet showed Doll his books. She’d raised her eyebrow at “Little Lost Star” but it had relaxed her enough to remain in his bedroom. Jet had lain beside her, watching her read. He wasn’t sure whose idea the massage was, but it had been his idea to have Doll use her fire, which had necessitated removing his shirt. It had been good while it lasted. “I’ll take you home,” he said.

The cousins generally did not lock their doors. Jet didn’t either, since he had nothing of value in the outer room. But he always locked his bedroom door. Doll opened it now to give Jet time to get dressed and ran smack into Macek, whose hand was poised to knock. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize . . .” Macek glanced beyond Doll, flustered to see her where she wasn’t supposed to be. Jet let him draw his own conclusions and didn’t bother explaining. “Jet, I need to talk to you.”

“When did you get back?” Jet pulled on his shirt and buttoned it.

“Just now. Jet, what did you do to my class? Tommy says he merged with you and now he knows he has fire inside him. He said they all did it.”

Doll smiled another little smile and walked past Macek to sit on the sofa by the window.

“Don’t you believe him?” Jet asked in a soft voice. “I could show you.”

Macek closed the outer door, where Tommy and a few of the other kids from the morning class had started to gather. “You were supposed to keep it simple. What did you do to them? Tommy’s talking as if you can walk right through them.”

“’Substance is but a seeming,’” Doll quoted from her place on the couch. Jet grinned at her.

“Is this really what you want to talk about after everything that’s happened?” Jet asked. “I assume you watched the news. You saw what happened at the King’s compound. Did you speak to your father yet?”

“No, I told you, I only just got back. I saw the attacks, yes, but I knew the Enforcer would handle it. Those flying things—they weren’t really part of the entertainment, were they? The people are saying they’re real, that flying machines are real. They’re not buying the Enforcer’s story. That’s the reason I came back. My father is still at the compound; I thought you were still at the compound with the other royal children too until I saw your light on. Does the Enforcer know you’re here?”

Jet shrugged. “I’m going back after I bring Doll home. There’s a lot you don’t know. Want to come with us and talk to your father yourself? The flying things were real. And we caught two of the operators.”

Doll gasped. She hadn’t known.

Macek nodded. “I’ll call my car,” he said. “We’ll drop off your friend and then continue on to the King’s mansion. They’ll recognize the car and let us in.”

Doll spoke up. “I want to go with you,” she said.

“No,” Macek replied before Jet had a chance to say anything. “Only the royal Family or its enforcers are allowed in the King’s compound.”

“Too late,” Jet said happily. “She’s already been there. Doll is with me. She stays.”

Tommy, who was waiting just outside Jet’s door, hung his head. “I’m sorry, Jet,” he said. “I didn’t mean to tell.”

Jet ruffled Tommy’s hair. “It’s fine. It’s time everybody understands what’s inside them. Macek too. I don’t mind if you tell.”

Doll clasped Jet’s arm as he followed Macek down to the car. Lorra watched silently from her doorway.

“What was all that about?” Macek muttered.

Jet explained what he had been doing with Macek’s morning class while he was gone. Macek flatly refused to believe it, which made Doll laugh softly. It was too late now. Jet had shown King Roy, he had even shown the two prisoners what he could do. Now that he’d looked at the book King Roy had given him, Jet saw no reason to hide any longer. Macek was skeptical about the book, too. “How do you know it’s true?” he demanded, dismissing the fact that the King had discovered it in his hidden library. “Why, if we were originally Elementals, would we need to have a written record of it at all?”

Doll looked at him wryly. “Because by then the Family had already begun to forget their origins?” she hazarded, although when Jet had told her about the book, she had expressed many of the same doubts. Are you sure it’s not just a fairy tale, like Little Lost Star? She had asked skeptically. But Jet himself was a powerful reminder that there might, after all, be some truth to the old tales.

“I’d like to see the book,”Macek said. “That’s what I do—study old records and try to sift truth from fancy. I’m surprised Uncle Roy never showed me that one.”

Jet was not surprised. The King had not wanted his brother the Enforcer to have that knowledge. It was ironic that, when Merrell found out about Jet, he didn’t want Jet to tell the King, either. Was it really overprotectiveness, or completely different agendas?

“You know, she shouldn’t be with you,” Macek said again as the car pulled into the gates that had been hidden until Macek showed his identification.

“Doll’s not leaving,” Jet said irritably, and Macek subsided. Jet pulled Doll closer and whispered in her ear. “Until this is over, stay with me.” Doll nodded, and Jet settled back in his seat.

Merrell met them at the front entrance, frowning when he saw Doll, but he addressed his son. “Were you successful?”

Macek, taken aback, replied. “I broke off my search as soon as I saw the broadcast about the attack. I thought you might need me.”

Tight-lipped, Merrell beckoned them inside. What search? Jet wondered. Macek had just told them he went all over Attania in search of old records. Was that what he had been doing? What old records could be more important than what had happened to the King’s compound?

“Jet said there were prisoners,” Macek said as they sat in the same small room where he had held Doll earlier in the day. “What happened, father?”

Merrell looked at Jet and Doll, and the look clearly said, what are you two doing here? Jet didn’t budge, however, and after a moment, Merrell began talking. “The prisoners are being uncooperative. We’ve let Jet have a try at convincing them, but that didn’t work so well.” He pinned Jet with a cool stare. “I’ll deal with them myself tomorrow.”

“You said you’d give me a week!” Jet protested.

“And then you left,” Merrell countered, still looking coolly at Jet. “You forfeited your right.”

“I found evidence of a settlement!” Macek blurted, diverting Merrell’s and Jet’s attention back to him. “In the East, where the blast was. The edges were still dark and dead, but there were roads leading to the center of the blast. I would have gone in further, but I heard what happened. We can go back, check it out. If any of the rebels have built a base there, it would have to be underground. Nothing lives on the surface.” Macek spoke quickly, trying to get it all out before his father cut him off.

“Do you know what these attackers called themselves?” Merrell asked softly. “Sons of Men.”

“Sons of Men!” Macek repeated eagerly. “I want—I need to talk to these prisoners! Let me see them before you dispose of them. They may know something about the places I’ve been researching if they use that term for themselves.”

Merrell glanced appraisingly at Jet before returning his gaze to his son. “Very well,” he murmured. “I’ll give Jet his week. You can speak to the prisoners during that time.”

“And the flying machines?” Macek tried not to sound too eager. “May I view those as well? I may be able to piece together how they got their information if I could examine them.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Macek said. “I gave Daniel orders to destroy both machines earlier this evening. If you have any questions on their construction, talk to Daniel.”

“What!” Jet and Macek chorused. “Why did you do that?” Jet asked. “We could have learned how they work!”

“Why?” Merrell asked harshly. “We don’t need machines to fly. They were unnecessary. It was better that we destroyed them immediately.”

Better for who? Jet thought angrily. Better for the Family who wanted, no needed to stay in power. Not all Family could use air or clouds. Not anymore. “Come on, Doll,” he said, abruptly standing up. He realized now how tenuous his authority over his two prisoners was. It could be taken away from him at any time. And now he had to share them with Macek.

“Wait!”

Gritting his teeth, Jet stopped in the hallway as Macek raced after them. He had at least wanted a few minutes alone with Reg and Ricky to prepare them for the inevitable. “What?” he growled.

“Show me what you meant in the car. What you showed Tommy and the others.” Macek glanced at Doll, and realized she must have experienced it too. “You know, the thing about substance.”

“Why?” Jet narrowed his eyes.

“I need to know,” Macek said. He glanced back at the room where his father had remained, their talk unfinished.

Jet let his hands go to flame, never letting go of Doll’s hand in the process. She was fire; she wasn’t alarmed. With his other hand, Jet reached out towards Macek’s chest. Macek took a sharp breath, but he didn’t move. Jet’s hand touched his chest and passed through it. Macek shivered, his eyes never leaving Jet’s face. Slowly, Jet withdrew his hand, turned and started walking down the long corridor with Doll.

“Jet!” Macek called after him. “I really would like to see that book.” He turned and went back into the room where Merrell awaited him.

Jet laughed hollowly and let the flames on his hands fade. “Sure,” he said, although Macek was no longer there to hear it. Doll squeezed his hand.

He un-did the shadow locks he himself had put on the prison door and opened it for Doll. “Wake up, boys!” he called out cheerfully, lighting up the floor of the prison to about ankle-depth. That got their attention, as Jet knew it would. “We’ve got problems,” he said as the two non-family prisoners blinked against the glare.

Reg stared at Doll. “Who’s she?” he asked in a trembling voice. Jet didn’t think the sight of Doll had caused it. He glanced at Ricky, up to now the defiant one, and the kid was pressed against the back wall of his cot, his mouth open in a prelude to a scream.

“Don’t,” Jet said, looking right at him. “There’s no time. This is Doll. She’s my girlfriend. She’s not going to hurt you. Neither one of us is going to hurt you,” he said in exasperation as Ricky pulled farther away. “But there’s another Family who’s coming, who is going to ask you a bunch of questions. His name is Macek Merrell.” Jet saw Reg’s eyes widen. “Yes, that’s right. The Enforcer’s son. You need to answer his questions. I don’t really care if you tell him the truth or not, but please answer him. If you do, you get to live a few days longer. If not,” Jet threw up his hands in a gesture of defeat. “There’s nothing else I can do. You’ll be killed.”

“We’re going to be killed anyway,” Reg said, his voice steadying as he looked at Doll rather than Jet. “I’d just as soon get it over with.”

“Maybe not,” Jet replied. “I can’t make any promises, but if you can hold on for a few more days, maybe I can do something about that.”

“Like what?” Ricky sneered, although his voice quavered when he said it. “What can you do?”

Jet let himself go incorporeal and buffeted the room in a torrent of wind. This time Ricky did scream out loud.

Doll had managed to sit at the edge of Reg’s small cot and was speaking to him slowly and quietly, as if he were a small child or a wild animal. Amazingly, it was working. Reg was answering her. Nothing consequential. Nothing much at all. But he was talking. Jet was suddenly glad Doll had asked to come along.

That left Ricky for Jet. He sat down on the floor near Ricky’s cot. “Oh, come on. It’s not as if you didn’t believe I could do it,” Jet coaxed in the only way he knew how. “You’re the ones who think we’re all Elementals. Well, I’ve got a secret for you too. As far as I know, you’re wrong. The Family are not Elementals any more. But I’m pretty sure I am.” He grinned. “Now, wouldn’t you like to live long enough to deliver that bit of news to your Sons of Men?”

Gradually, even Ricky relaxed. He admitted he hadn’t truly believed, any more than King Roy or Merrell had until they were shown the truth. The truth was very sobering. On the one hand, Jet wasn’t human, or not completely so. On the other hand, he was very much a person, and so was Doll.

It was a start on what Jet had hoped to accomplish. He had no idea if he was even being truthful when he said he would try to find a way so that the two non-family would not have to die. He hoped so, but at the moment he had no idea how to go about it. By the time Macek came down to meet the prisoners, they were both calmer and used to speaking with Family.

“Where are you from?” Macek asked, point-blank.

“Ballind,” Reg said promptly, naming a town about a hundred miles to the north of Darcy. Jet was pretty sure it was a lie. In fact, he hoped it was, because Merrell would be sure to destroy that town utterly if it were true. He might do it even if it were not true.

Jet sighed. He really didn’t want to know. He left Macek to his questioning and went to find a place where he and Doll could get some sleep. “I’ll be good,” he promised her, kissing the tip of her nose. “But I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

There were lots of empty rooms in the King’s mansion. Jet picked one with a big bed and an adjoining bathroom, and lay down while Doll washed. “I’m too tired to be anything but good,” he grumbled, closing his eyes. He felt the bed shift slightly when Doll climbed in the other side.

Things were coming to a head, and he wasn’t sure where it would all lead, but at least one thing today had gone right. Smiling, without opening his eyes, his hand crept across the blanket and found Doll’s. Finally, he could go to sleep.


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