The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 37

Doll helped situate the Family in the same block of rooms where she, Jet, Ben and Reg had been held. She didn’t see the need to mention that part to them. It had bathrooms, and a small kitchen in the back past the main official-looking gathering hall.

Merrell’s enforcers posted guards even though the underground city was deserted. Aylard was a force to be reckoned with. So was Jet, heir-apparent or not. One guard, a cousin Jet had never met, stood outside the main door, and another waited by the stationary one-rail in case others of Aylard’s men returned. The rest grudgingly took turns eating, washing, and patrolling the empty streets.

Macek sat in a small side office delightedly going over books which Aylard had tossed to him soon after everyone got settled. Where Aylard had gotten the books was a mystery. Jet would have liked to take a look at them himself but he had other pressing matters to take care of first.

Merrell cornered Jet on his way to one of them.

“What do you really know about this Aylard? Where is he from? What is his lineage? If his branch of the Family went to such lengths to keep him hidden from us, there must be a reason for it. They probably bred him to challenge the true leader of Attania—that’s you, Jet, or it will be.”

Jet’s lips twitched in amusement. “Oh, I doubt that’s it,” he replied. “Aylard will want to tell you himself, I’m sure. You’ll be surprised at his agenda. I can tell you it doesn’t involve ruling Attania.”

“Are you sure?” Merrell gazed at Jet skeptically. “He says he’s an advocate for the humans, but I think this whole Sons of Men movement is a front to get support for his eventual takeover. They don’t know he’s Family, do they?”

“Aylard is not Family, not in the way you think of it,” Jet said. “And I agree with you about his motives. To an extent. He’s not the altruist he pretends to be among the non-family, but he does care for them, as much as someone like him is able.”

Reg came barreling down the hallway. “Jet, where—oh.” He skidded to a halt, eying Merrell warily. “There you are. Doll was looking for you. She—“ He glanced at Merrell again, before continuing. “She says Daniel is snooping into people’s houses and going through their things.”

“Great,” muttered Jet, moving towards Reg. “I’ll talk to him.”

Merrell said, “I’ll go with you,” but Aylard appeared seemingly out of thin air, which was altogether possible. “On second thought, you go. I think Aylard and I need to have a talk.”

“Just what I was thinking,” Aylard said with a grim smile.

Jet frowned. “Don’t kill each other,” he admonished, only half-kidding. Merrell raised one eyebrow, and Aylard snorted derisively.

Jet trotted after Reg towards the outskirts of Parrion, where Doll was arguing with a determined Daniel in front of a wooden door set back into a curved stone wall. This particular ‘house’ had been built partially into the cavern walls themselves very near the terminus of the one-rail. An enforcer guard hovered nearby, not interfering as of yet, but clearly paying close attention to the argument.

“This might be where the records for the one-rail are kept,” Daniel was saying. He had the lock partially pried loose from the door. “It’s probably not somebody’s home. It’s too close to the one-rail.”

Doll had her hands on her hips as she glared back at Daniel. “You don’t know that! And even if it is an office, what gives you the right to go barging in there? It’s not yours!”

Jet smiled. Doll was not royal. She had not been brought up in privilege, believing that whatever she wanted was hers for the taking. Neither had Jet, but he had taken what he wanted nevertheless, usually because he needed it to survive. Doll, however, had scruples. “Doll’s right,” he said, striding over to the door. He laid a hand on it and used fire to bend the lock back to its original shape, freezing it briefly with shadow so it would stay. “We promised Aylard we would not interfere.”

“But—but—I wanted to see how the one-rail works!” Daniel blurted. “What does it matter? No one’s here anyway. They abandoned it, and we, as the conquerers, get to take it, right?”

“You’re not conquerers,” Reg said. “Jet and Aylard brought you here. If anything, you’re our prisoners.” He stared boldly at Daniel.

“Your prisoners! I don’t think so!” Daniel snapped. “You’re not even Family. You can’t hold me—“

“Yeah, but I can,” Jet interrupted Daniel. “Knock it off, Daniel. If you want to know about the one-rail, ask Reg. He can tell you about it, and about the fliers—flitters—too.”

Daniel’s eyes widened. “That’s right! I forgot he knows about the fliers—they’re called flitters?” Daniel turned to Reg. “What did you use to fuel them? I looked for a tank but didn’t see one.”

Reg looked to Jet for help, but Jet just shrugged and grinned, leaving the problem of Daniel and his insatiable curiosity for mechanical things to Reg’s discretion. Macek might be the scholar of the family, but Macek’s interests were steeped in history and tradition. Daniel’s interests were more—contemporary. Jet chuckled. That should keep them both busy for a while. “Come on,” he said, taking Doll’s arm. The impassive enforcer—Jet was pretty sure he had been one of the ones who’d accompanied them to Salter several times—folded his hands behind his back and settled in to guard the two young men, one Family, one not, who presently had their heads together and were talking quickly and earnestly in front of the house Daniel had wanted to break into. The enforcer would make sure they didn’t hurt each other. From the looks of it, once they got over the idea that they were on opposite sides, Reg and Daniel might actually have a lot in common.

“Where are we going?” Doll followed Jet to the opposite end of town, away from the prying eyes of the other enforcers who guarded the streets from nothing. The only danger right now was currently in talks with Merrell, and if those talks didn’t go well, there was nothing the enforcers could do about it anyway. They couldn’t even get back to the surface without walking through miles of tunnels.

Jet led Doll to the hidden entrance Aylard had shown him, the one which led deeper underground into the tunnels lit by parallel lines of color which only activated as a response to elemental power. “Do you trust me?” he whispered. The tunnel narrowed dramatically soon after they entered.

“Of course I do,” Doll murmured, but she held tightly to his hand in the close space. Jet called up a globe of light and led them downwards, coming at last to the small grotto. He touched his globe of light to the walls and bands of color raced around the enclosure, giving it a soft glow. “Oh!” Doll gasped as she stared around her in wonder. “It’s beautiful.”

“Do you trust me?” Jet asked once more, taking Doll into his arms. She was warm, as she should be considering her true essence was fire. He kissed her lips gently. She was soft, too, and she smelled—wonderful. There was much to recommend this physical form and Jet intended to discover every bit of it. But first . . . gradually he let his body become fire, kindling an answering fire in Doll. She let her hands and then her arms change, waiting for Jet to pass his own burning essence through her as he had done in the past. It was an exquisite sensation, one that non-family could never experience. But today, Jet wanted more. He coaxed her wordlessly—he had no words in this form—to let go, to join him, fire to fire, essence to essence. At first, Doll stiffened. She understood what Jet was asking, but she had been human all her life. It was hard to let that go. For Jet, though, Doll would try.

All at once, something in Doll broke loose, and with a shudder she let go of her physical form, becoming truly fire through and through. Her self mingled with Jet’s, hers fire, his cool wind, deep shadow, flowing water and yes, burning fire to match her own. They swirled together, one, and yet, themselves. Jet drew Doll’s essence with him and left the gently glowing grotto through a tunnel far too small for their human selves. He whisked them deeper and deeper into the secret heart of Attania, and where they passed, colors blossomed along the stone walls. Finally, Jet found a tunnel large enough for their physical forms and he transformed, still holding Doll’s fire essence within his cupped hands. “Come back,” he breathed, and waited expectantly.

Doll gathered her physical form back to herself and found herself in Jet’s arms. He kissed her hungrily. “That was . . .” Jet stopped her with another kiss.

“I want you,” he whispered in her ear. “In this form, as in the other.”

Doll giggled. “Here? Like this? After what we just did, it seems so . . . anti-climactic.”

Jet grinned, and lay down his shirt. “I’ll show you anti-climactic,” he said, pulling her down to the cave’s floor, colors striating all around them. He reached for her buttons, wanting to experience everything physically. From the eager way Doll reached to help him, Jet figured she did, too.

Jet was experienced; Doll wasn’t. So Jet went slow, touching her everywhere on the outside almost as much as he had merged his essence with hers on the inside in their other forms. Oh, yes, this way was nice, too. When Doll was ready, she let Jet know, and he merged with her in the human way, as Aylard would say. They merged a couple of times over the course of the afternoon, finally lying in each other’s arms, blissfully tired.

“So which was better?” Jet propped himself up on one elbow, gazing down into Doll’s sleepy eyes.

“What?” For a moment, Doll didn’t understand what Jet was asking. When she got it, she laughed. “Both, of course! If you think I’m giving up either of those, you’re crazy!” She let her hands become fire and plunged them into Jet’s chest. He matched her, fire for fire, and soon they merged in the elemental way again, and Jet couldn’t honestly say which was better. Like Doll, he opted for both.

Doll had less trouble letting go of her physical form after that, and she reluctantly followed Jet when they zipped in elemental form through the tunnels back to the underground city. Jet wanted to make sure Aylard and Merrell, not to mention Daniel and Reg, hadn’t done anything too stupid while he was gone.

Daniel glared up at them when he strolled into the building where the Family was being housed, hand in hand with Doll. “What are you two smiling about?” he growled. Reg sat at the table next to Daniel. They had a big potl of soup in front of them.

“Where did you get that?” Jet asked, sitting down. He found a loaf of bread and tore off a chunk, dipping it in the soup and eating it. “Mm, good.”

“I made it,” Doll remarked, throwing a sharp look at all three men. “It was supposed to be for supper.”

“Great—you can cook, too!” Jet said enthusiastically. He held out a soaked piece of bread to her. Doll took it gingerly, breaking off smaller pieces so she could eat it without stuffing the whole thing in her mouth like Jet had done. “Where’s everybody else?”

Reg moved over so Doll could sit next to Jet. He shoveled another mouthful of soup, and then mumbled, “Been shouting for a while, then suddenly it stopped. The Enforcer’s son went in to see what was going on. We stayed out here.”

At least the building was still standing. That was something. “Merrell and Aylard?”

Reg nodded. Daniel added, “We came back here about an hour ago and would have turned around and left again, except we were hungry, and this is the only place that has food.”

“Where’s Ben?” Jet asked. He wondered about the other enforcers, too, but he realized several of them were already inside the building. Were they expecting trouble?

“He went to look for you,” Reg said. “I told him I’d watch this one ‘til you got back.” He spoke the last part with a grin. Daniel fake-punched his arm.

Well, that hadn’t taken long, Jet thought, watching the two interact. He was glad, in a way. Even though Daniel had turned out to be such a jerk, Jet had liked him. He liked Reg, too. Part of Daniel’s problem was that he was immature—and spoiled. Neither Reg nor Jet could claim they had been spoiled growing up. “I’d better see what’s going on,” he said with a sigh, pushing away from the table. “See if you can find Ben in the meantime.”

He didn’t have to go far. Aylard perched rigidly on the edge of a desk in one of the unused offices, while Macek had his father by the arm and was whispering urgently to him. Merrell’s eyes swiveled as he caught sight of Jet. “There you are!” he said, shaking off Macek’s arm. “Do you know what this—this creature—wants us to do!”

“Yeah. I know.” Jet stepped between the two Merrells and Aylard, feeling tension fray as if he were cutting it with a knife. “Go back to the way we once were.” He turned tired eyes on Aylard. “I already told you that’s not an option.”

“He wants to kill us!” Merrell growled in outrage. “It’s not some ruse to get the non-family to support him. He really wants us all dead!”

“I know,” Jet sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Did he tell you why?”

“We’re abominations. We never should have been born. He went on and on.” Merrell cast a dark look at Aylard. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”

“Lucky you,” Jet muttered under his breath. Aloud, he said, “Aylard has information about the earliest Family. He believes Family were once pure Elementals, and we have these physical bodies by mistake, more or less. He thinks that we need to shed these bodies to get back to the way nature intended us to be. He doesn’t look at it as killing us. Notice, however, that he hasn’t offered to give up his own permanently, either.”

"That’s because I don’t need to,” Aylard spat, coming to his feet. “I can release my body at my choosing, just as you can.”

Jet smiled. “You see? At first, he tried to kill me too. When he realized he couldn’t, he recruited me as an ally.” Jet hurriedly held up his hands. “I said no,” he added. “I’ve been trying to teach him where he’s gone wrong, but apparently he doesn’t believe me.”

“I listened,” Aylard said. “You’re wrong.”

“Jet,” Macek interjected. “The books Aylard showed me? He’s right, at least about some of what he says.” Merrell glared at his son, but Macek ignored him. “We knew the Family originated in the East and then spread out westward over the rest of Attania. They brought their knowledge with them across the country and eventually hid it in libraries in all the big cities, so that only the royal Family could have access to it. Eventually, even some of that knowledge was hidden from us by our predecessors. I can only believe now that it was to protect us from the truth. The books he gave me are earlier than any I’ve found in my travels. They mention the Ones Who Were First, the Neverborn. It is said they were the first Elementals to take on human form, but that they died from splitting themselves too thin through birth and rebirth and placing a piece of their true selves into each subsequent generation.” He looked up. “It sounds like the opposite of what we royals did. Instead of combining their elemental strengths, these first Elementals weakened themselves by scattering their elemental strength too wide, to the point where they eventually died—and we are what remain. I think the royal Family is strong only because we realized this and inter-bred for elemental strength.”

“Abominations,” Aylard muttered.

Jet realized Aylard had stopped short of telling them that he was an original Elemental. Actually, he had. He’d introduced himself as Aylard First, but so far not even Macek had put it together yet.

“So, to return to what Elementals are supposed to be, our physical selves must die,” Macek concluded, earning another glare from his father.

“Not necessarily,” Jet said. “Look at me. Look at Aylard.” Just not too closely, he prayed. “We can release our physical bodies without actually dying. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die and lose who I am just to go drifting about the heavens as wind or light or whatever. Why can’t we do both?”

Merrell scowled. “Maybe you can do that, but the rest of us can’t. Who’s going to stop Aylard from killing us when he’s done ‘listening?’”

“How do you know the rest of us can’t?” Jet challenged. “Doll can. I’m pretty sure Mattie can, too. And Tommy, Charles—“

“Tommy! What do you mean?” Merrell demanded.

“Who are these people?” Aylard demanded just as imperiously. “Are you saying they can release their elemental spirit from their physical bodies as you can? This I would like to see.” He began pacing back and forth.

Jet began to despair they would ever reach an agreement. He was running out of ideas. He couldn’t keep the Enforcer and his men here in Parrion indefinitely. He had hoped that by being forced to negotiate, they would all come to some sort of an agreement that did not involve ending each other’s existence.

“I’ll give you this much,” Merrell finally replied. “We will leave and not harm your people as long as you guarantee that the Sons of Men will immediately cease their attacks on the Family.”

“Done,” agreed Aylard. “With one addition: when you leave I am coming with you to Darcy. I think it is time I meet this King of yours.

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