The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 38

Aylard went to tell his men the news. He went in his own way, which no one but Jet could follow, but Jet wasn’t worried. Aylard was the one who wanted to come with them. Sure enough, Aylard returned and announced that some of his people would be returning to the underground city of Parrion on the one-rail, and would take the Family out to the edge of the blasted lands. He was slightly evasive when Merrell asked him how his men had taken the news that from now on all hostility against Family must stop. Merrell asked him point-blank if he’d told them he was Family, and predictably, Aylard blew up at him, shouting that he wasn’t Family. So that was a no.

Ben volunteered to remain in Parrion. “I’ll explain the situation to them,” he said. “As leader of the Southern Quadrant, I have some authority over the Sons of Men. They’ll listen to me if Aylard tells them to.” Aylard nodded his agreement.

It was decided that messages would be sent back to the four quadrants, and Aylard himself, who admitted he had never left the East until now, would follow up after he visited the King in Darcy. “How will they know who you are?” Jet wanted to know.

Aylard assured him that the quadrant leaders had all had opportunity to visit the new Parrion over the years and were well acquainted with his appearance. Jet had to wonder how none of them had ever noticed the telltale signs of Family, even if Aylard’s coloring was off. Then again, he had grown up among non-family, and none of them with the exception of possibly Ben had ever suspected he was Family either. He hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, although he suspected he must be Family or something like it. Aylard and Jet had a lot in common after all.

The enforcers entered the one-rail first, before allowing Merrell and Macek and the rest of their group to board. Macek carried a large sack filled with the books Aylard had given him. Aylard boarded last, giving his confused people a casual wave. They didn’t really understand what had happened to make the leader of the Sons of Men suddenly on friendly terms with the enemy. Even the ones who had witnessed Aylard’s disappearance when the trouble started had not connected the facts. They assumed it was Family who had taken Aylard through some esoteric means, and not the other way around. Clearly, Aylard had not taken the opportunity to explain.

Daniel sat across from Reg, leaning forward excitedly in anticipation of the trip. He was fascinated by all things mechanical, and the one-rail was a piece of technology hitherto unheard-of in Attania, although, according to Aylard, it had been in use in the underground caverns of the blasted lands for the last ten years. Daniel had approached Merrell with a plan: he wanted to accompany Reg back to the Northern Quadrant when Reg returned to give Aylard’s message to his father. He would be the proof that the Sons of Men had established a truce with Family. Secretly, Daniel hoped to see the place where the flitters were made. Reg, surprisingly, had agreed readily enough. “It has to start somewhere,” he argued. “But Dan, you could try wearing a hat or something until we get there, couldn’t you? Just so someone doesn’t shoot you by accident.”

The one-rail whooshed through its dedicated tunnel, following the path Jet and his group had taken on their way to Parrion. When they emerged through the gap in the rock, Attania’s sun gleamed brightly above them. There was not a cloud in the sky. Astoundingly, the Sons of Men soldiers who had accompanied them uncovered a sleek car from somewhere among the rocks. This is what they used when they made forays into the inhabited areas of Attania. “I knew it!” shouted Macek excitedly.

They took the Family in groups to the place where Ben had parked his old truck. Merrell eyed it doubtfully. The Sons of Men left them there, after conferring with their leader one last time. Jet saw a soldier nod grimly as he turned to go. They would not let down their guard. Parrion would remain protected. Jet was glad. As they drove away, Jet glanced back. The soldiers were gone, but the sky over the blasted lands darkened and sand began to swirl, swallowing the road behind them in a cloud of dust. Aylard had not let his guard down either.

An enforcer drove the rickety old truck back to Low City. Aylard, who had insisted on sitting up front, looked around the city with interest. The rest of them had piled into the empty cargo space in the back. It was a bumpy ride into the city.

Jet took Doll home to get her things and explain to her parents that she and Jet were now together. It helped that Merrell and the rest of the enforcers waited right outside their house. Merrell had somehow acquired the ubiquitous limousine he always seemed to favor. In fact, there were three of them parked in front of Doll’s house.

Doll hugged both her parents without letting go of Jet’s hand. Her eyes shone wetly. “I love him, Mom,” she sniffled, smiling although she looked like she was about to burst into tears. Jet held onto her hand awkwardly. Before he knew what was happening, Doll’s mother drew him into their hug and kissed his cheek. Jet blushed.

“Is it really all right?” Doll’s father asked. He was short, for Family, and stout, disproving Aylard’s contention that all Family imitated each other because that’s all they knew how to do. Over time, Family had begun showing more and more individual differences, not only in their personalities, but also physically. Family were human as much as they were elementals. It remained to be seen if they could be both.

Since Jet and Doll had come back from the tunnels, no one, not even Merrell, questioned their right to be together. Not that Jet would have listened anyway. Aylard had to see Doll’s transformation for himself, and in full view of the Family, he had merged with her in the elemental way with Jet’s blessing. It wasn’t the same thing as sex. Neither gender nor personality mattered. Merging was as natural to elementals as it was glorious. Doll couldn’t maintain her elemental form for long. She was born human; it was what she reverted to inevitably. But her flushed face and shining eyes showed how much she had enjoyed merging her elemental form with Aylard’s. It made Jet want to merge with the human side of her right then and there. He settled for a deep kiss. Her human form was his and his alone, not that Aylard would have wanted to experience that kind of merging anyway. Aylard was still slightly horrified at the thought of such a thing. His loss.

Reg found his own way out of Low City through contacts Ben had given him. Daniel, dressed in jeans and a heavy sweatshirt as a concession to the cold weather, had darkened his face with make-up Doll provided since he wouldn’t lower himself to smear dirt all over his face like Jet and Aylard had done. Of course, neither Jet nor Aylard had actually smeared dirt on their faces; rather, they had let it build up over time until their faces took on a slightly darker, if grayish tint. Aylard’s still looked like that, although Jet now looked like any other Family, except for his many braids. Daniel would accompany Reg to the Northern Quadrant where Reg was from.

“Keep an eye on him,” Jet said, shaking hands with Reg. “Wouldn’t want to lose my favorite cousin.” Daniel glanced at him, pleased but trying not to show it.

“I will. Dan’s a good guy.” Reg let go of Jet’s hand and gave Doll a hug. “Take care of Jet for us, will you?” he asked. “He tends to get in trouble on his own. We’re counting on you. He’s all our hope.”

Doll, eyes shining, murmured, “I know. I will.” She stepped back. “See you soon?”

“Count on it.”

The last Jet saw of Reg and Daniel, they were making their way back towards the farmer’s market. He’d been moved by Reg’s words, and slightly dismayed. He didn’t want to be anybody’s hope, but nobody else seemed to be doing it. “Come on, let’s go.”

They entered Merrell’s limousine for the long ride back to Darcy. Macek and Aylard were also in the first limousine, with Aylard up front again next to the driver so he could look out of the window. In some ways, he was like a kid on his first trip away from home. Jet realized with a jolt that was exactly what he is—and he had been the same way when Merrell had first brought him to Darcy. The only difference was that Jet had almost immediately fallen asleep and missed much of the ride. He yawned. Sleep sounded like a good idea. Vaguely, as he drifted off, he heard Macek ask Aylard: “Who are you really?” He didn’t hear the answer.

When Jet woke up, they were nearly to Arden. Aylard had traded spots with Merrell and now sat opposite him and Doll, speaking quietly with Macek. He looked up as Jet awoke. “Macek has been telling me about your school which teaches elemental skills to young Family.”

“Royals,” Macek interjected, glancing at Doll. She was just waking up also, and had missed the comment when she yawned and stretched her arms out over her head.

“The ones with multiple elements bound inside themselves,” Aylard clarified, dismissing Macek’s label. “Why should they need to be taught to use what is a part of themselves?”

Doll let out a small chuckle. “Our powers are considered dangerous. Only the royal Family, who have multiple abilities, are allowed to use them. The rest of us are taught not to use our powers so we won’t cause unrest among the non-family whom we live among, and so we won’t pose a threat to the royals.” She gazed challengingly at Macek.

“Our young royals need to be shown how to channel their abilities so they won’t harm themselves or others accidentally,” Macek explained. “Ask Jet what happened when he taught one of our youngsters to use fire before the boy was ready.”

“He burned his hand,” Jet admitted with a frown. “I couldn’t understand it then either, but now I see that they are what they believe they are. But now they know better. The boy will never burn himself again.”

They pulled up in front of Arden.

“Jet! Jet!” Mattie, Charles, John and Tommy surrounded Jet and Doll as he brought her up to his room. “Jet!” Lorra ran out with a smile, which faltered when she saw Doll. She forced herself to smile anyway. “Welcome back! I knew you weren’t the one who let those prisoners go!”

Jet grinned but didn’t answer. “It’s good to see you all.”

“Look, look, Jet!” Mattie spun flame in his hands and suddenly his entire body was enveloped in flame. He came back to his regular self moments later with a proud grin on his face. “See what I can do?”

Jet glanced at Lorra, but she didn’t seem surprised. Mattie must have been practicing. “Great job!” he congratulated the young royal. “Doll can do it now, too. Show him, Doll.”

Obligingly, Doll let go of her human form to become a pillar of pure flame. This time Lorra’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Ooh, teach me!” she said to Jet, casting Doll a look as if to say if a commoner could do that, then surely she, a royal, could do it too.

“Look! Look!” Each of the kids had to show Jet what they could do, although none were as far along as Mattie and Doll yet. Jet made sure to praise each one.

Back at the entrance to the student wing, Merell leaned against the wall to observe, his arms crossed over his chest. Aylard stood next to him. After a time, the children realized the Enforcer and a stranger were watching them and they stopped what they were doing immediately, shooting Jet guilty looks for betraying his secret. “It’s all right, they know,” he assured them, patting Mattie on the head. The boy hadn’t left his side since he got back. He walked over to the two men.

“You did this?” Aylard asked.

Jet shrugged. “I just showed them. They did it themselves.”

“And you think any of us can learn to do it too?” Merrell questioned sharply, as he worked through the possibilities.

“Maybe. It takes an open mind,” Jet said. Adults might not be as open to change as the children were. Macek, maybe. Merrell, he wasn’t so sure.

“Good. Keep it up,” Merrell said, as if teaching the students to transform from their physical bodies to their elemental selves had been his idea all along. He stopped Aylard when he would have gone to the children and offered to merge with them. “Later,” he said curtly. “You said you wanted to meet the King. Follow me.”

“But this is a school!” Aylard protested, although he followed Merrell down the hallway readily enough. “I thought your King resided in Darcy.”

Jet didn’t catch the rest of what Merrell had said, but he could guess. Darcy was the royal Family’s stronghold even more so than Arden. It had hurt the royals more than they wanted to admit when the Sons of Men scored an attack on the King’s residence in Darcy. Merrell would rather have the meeting between the King and Aylard here, where he could somewhat control the situation. Unfortunately for Merrell, this placed Aylard squarely within the reach of all the royal children, something Merrell had possibly not considered until just now.

“Where’s my father?” Macek asked, coming out of his own suite of rooms where he had put his precious books.

“Who was that man?” Mattie wanted to know, tugging on Jet’s sleeve.

Jet wanted nothing more than to grab Doll and retreat behind the security of his own door, but he figured he’d better see how the meeting went first. After all, King Roy had destroyed Parrion when it was a rebel city in the East. He had literally blasted the city and its surrounds out of existence, and only thought that the land continued to be uninhabitable because that’s what Aylard wanted everyone to think. In reality, Aylard used his elemental winds to drive everyone away so that the new underground city of Parrion would not be discovered. It had worked for the past thirteen years. Still, Aylard must harbor anger against the man responsible for destroying his city. Jet didn’t trust Aylard’s new cooperativeness.

“Do you mind?” he asked Doll. “I’ll be back soon.”

“I’m fine. Go,” she said, shooing Jet away. She smiled and knelt down to show Tommy how she could change just her hands to fire. Lorra sat cross-legged on the floor and watched her, tilting her head and holding out her own hand as she concentrated on imitating the commoner girl.

Jet skidded into Merrell’s office a half a step behind Macek, stopping just inside the entrance. King Roy sat at Merrell’s desk. His hands gripped the edge of the desk tightly as he stared at Aylard. Jet couldn’t tell if he was outraged or frightened. Hadn’t Merrell told him they were coming?

“What is this?” The King demanded, coming to his feet. “You brought the leader of the Sons of Men here? Why didn’t you kill him?”

Outraged, then. Not a good beginning.

Aylard stared back at the King, calm perhaps because the King was so angry. He glanced at Jet, then fixed his gaze back on the King, as if looking for a resemblance. “This is your father? The one who sired you in flesh and blood?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jet had the blood test to prove it. “And the other stuff too, I guess. He and my mother.”

“Ah.” Aylard pushed forward and took a chair by the desk, extending his hand. “I am Aylard First. You destroyed my city thirteen years ago in hopes of eradicating the Sons of Men. I’m here to tell you that you did not succeed.”

King Roy glanced around at the faces in front of him: his brother Thomas, his nephew Macek, his son—“Jet—Roderick! You’re alive!”

Jet felt guilty for letting his father worry about him. That was a new sensation. “Yeah,” he answered again, the master of intelligent conversation. “Uh, sir—there’s something you don’t know—“

King Roy interrupted him. “I can see it. He’s not human. What are you, Aylard First? Besides leader of the Sons of Men. Are you a traitor to your own kind?” The King’s eyes skittered over Jet, so Jet knew the King had at least thought it of Jet. “Are you an Elemental?”

Surprised, Jet threw a quick glance at Merrell, but he looked just as surprised as Jet. Jet remembered the night he had revealed his true self to his father. King Roy had been shaken, but he had accepted Jet was an Elemental. Of course he would see the similarities.

Once Jet was satisfied that the King and Aylard wouldn’t immediately kill each other (or try to), he saw no reason to stay. Merrell was loath to leave the two of them alone. He told Jet afterward that it was because he knew his brother, and King Roy might too readily believe Aylard’s wild tales. Against his better judgment, Merrell left the two of them to work it out on their own.

King Roy remained locked away with Aylard for three days, much to Merrell’s dismay. Except for meals, they remained closeted in Merrell’s office. Jet used the opportunity to present Doll to his mother. She stared straight ahead at the flickering television in her darkened room while Jet introduced Doll. He was half afraid his mother would start screaming as soon as she saw him, but she showed no recognition whatsoever.

“Mother, it’s Roddy,” he said gently, careful not to touch her. No reaction.

Doll knelt by the older woman’s chair and rested her hands on her knees. “Mother,” she said. “I’m glad to meet you. I love your son Roddy. I promise to take good care of him.”

That got a reaction out of Elen. “Roddy?” she echoed, seeming to focus for a minute on Doll’s earnest face. “Take care of Roddy?”

“Yes, yes!” Doll said eagerly, but the moment had passed. Elen slipped back into whatever world she inhabited in her mind. Her eyes fixed on the flickering television screen.

Jet helped Doll up. “That was great,” he said. “She heard you.”

“You think so?”

Jet nodded. “She’s had a hard time of it ever since I disappeared as a small child. I didn’t know. If I’d known . . . .” Jet stopped. What would he have done? He was just a child. He hadn’t known how to get back home even if he’d wanted to, and after that first harrowing night alone, he had wanted nothing more than to go home. He thought of how different his life would have been if he had never run away. Shaking his head, he pulled Doll away. “We’ll come back another time.”

Aylard finally emerged from his meeting with the King and wanted immediately to meet the other royal students at Arden. Merrell agreed, but only if either Jet or Macek were present and only if Aylard promised to refrain from ‘merging’ with the students. Somewhere along the line, someone had introduced Aylard to the pleasures of hot water, and, showered and dressed in fresh clothing, the transformation was astounding. Aylard’s hair was now black as a crow’s feather, and his skin was as white as milk. He looked like what he was at last: Family.

Macek feverishly read and re-read Aylard’s books, closeting himself in with King Roy to discuss their implications. Macek had the greatest resource right in front of him in Aylard, but he continued to look for answers in the books. Jet was just as glad. He wasn’t sure the Family was ready for the truth yet.

When it was Jet’s turn to watch over Aylard, he couldn’t find him anywhere in Arden. Macek told him Aylard had spoken at length with the King about Jet’s abilities, and had gone to visit Jet’s mother in hopes of finding out more, even though the King had explained the futility of that approach because of Elen Estee’s mental condition.

“You just let him go?” Jet asked incredulously. It wasn’t really fair to blame Macek. Aylard could go wherever he wished whenever he wished. That he didn’t was only due to his own agenda, which no one really understood. Jet dissolved his physical body and sped as wind to the place where his mother was kept.

Transforming back, Jet rushed into the TV room. Aylard sat on the floor talking to his mother in a low voice. Was it just Jet’s imagination, or was his mother actually looking at Aylard? Her eyes followed his hands as Aylard gestured occasionally to make a point. She was listening!

Aylard reached forward and placed both his hands on Elen’s shoulders, speaking softly. Her lips parted and she smiled. With a sigh, the shape that was Elen Estee suddenly shattered into a million water droplets which immediately were absorbed into the floor, leaving Aylard with his arms outstretched over the suddenly empty chair.

Jet yelled, “What did you do!” He rushed forward, but there was nothing of his mother left.

Aylard turned. “I told her how to let go,” he said quietly.

Jet clenched his fists. “You killed her!” Aylard had once told Jet that when they were released back into their elemental forms, Family would retain no memory of who they had once been, so sentient consciousness at all. “She’s gone!”

“What kind of life did she have now? Was she enjoying the physical world?” Aylard asked more gently than Jet would have given him credit for.

Jet had to admit that no, she was not. Whatever had happened to Elen to make her lose her mind had robbed her of all earthly pleasure. Aylard assured Jet that his mother chose this willingly.

Jet closed his eyes. “I would have liked to say good-bye.”

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