The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 39

Jet stared at the damp spot where moments before his mother had been. I would have liked to say good-bye. How inadequate for what Jet was feeling right now. Aylard regarded him with something close to pity, and suddenly it was too much.

Jet let his body go and became wind. He tore around the small room, heedless of Aylard, who endured Jet’s assault in his human form. Where was his mother’s essence? Shouldn’t Jet still be able to feel something of her in this form? But there was nothing.

He raged a little longer, and then took off into the sky, half-hoping Aylard would follow in his elemental form. But the man stayed stubbornly human. High in the sky, Jet drew clouds to him, instinctively calling a thunderstorm which blackened the sky. He loosed the rain in a violent cloudburst. His mother had had an affinity for water among all the elements she contained in her mortal shell. She’d chosen water as her release. Jet found the part of him that was water—his inheritance from her—and followed the rain to the earth, hoping to sense some piece of Elen.

As water, Jet just was. It was the same with wind or any of the other elements. They just were, and when he was his element, that had always been enough for Jet. Was there ever anything more?

Jet found himself curled upon the ground in his mortal form, his hair still damp from when he had been water. Aylard stood nearby, watching silently. Jet got to his feet, drying his hair with a snap. He stalked over to Aylard. “Why?” he growled. “Why can’t I sense her? Where did she go?” Above them, the sky slowly cleared as the unnatural storm broke apart.

“I told you.” Aylard put a steadying hand on Jet’s shoulder. “She’s part of Attania now. She is no longer the creature you knew.”

That was exactly what had been bothering Jet. He hadn’t known Elen. What he remembered of his mother from before, when he was a very small child, was a cool, aloof woman who had never been particularly kind to him. The only mother he’d known at the time had been Janna. Then when he’d finally accepted his heritage and met Elen again a few short months ago, she had already lost her mind and didn’t recognize him.

Was it guilt he was feeling?

“If we’re Elementals, why can’t we merge with the elementals all around us? Why can’t I even sense them?”

Aylard hesitated. “It’s hard to sense them,” he agreed. “What we have become is something else. When we merge, we retain our consciousness, so we know who we are. The elementals we came from just are. They merge and part and merge again, and that is their existence. Why do you think it was so tempting for our kind to assume human form?”

Jet understood what Aylard was saying. Hadn’t he just had that same thought? But he didn’t like what it meant. “So you know you’re killing Family when you free their essence,” he accused Aylard. “You just killed my mother.”

Aylard shook his head. “I did not. She chose to let go. I just gave her the option.”

“She was crazy!” Jet shouted. “She had no idea what she was choosing!”

Aylard’s jaw clenched stubbornly. “She wanted to let go,” he insisted.

A black sedan pulled into the driveway and two figures made their way behind the building where Elen Estee had lived. Merrell and the King. They must have seen the storm and followed it, knowing Aylard had been coming here.

“You deal with them,” Jet said shortly, dissolving into wind again. His temper had settled down but Jet was in no mood to listen to either his father or his uncle. Let them decide what to make of Aylard’s latest move. Jet was in no mood to listen to anyone.

A part of him felt bad about abandoning Doll, but she would understand. Jet wanted to disappear for a little while, like he used to do when he was younger and life got too overwhelming. Only he was too far away from Low City to escape into his little hidey-hole.

He found himself at the bus station in Darcy and crawled into the back of one of the out-of-service buses parked in the dark garage. He pulled shadows all around himself and let the darkness hide him.

When Jet was little, he had disappeared underneath the subway tunnels in Low City to escape from Box Man who couldn’t follow through the narrow gap Jet was able to access as wind. It was probably the first time he had transformed. Thinking back, Jet wondered how he had known to transform in the first place. He remembered reaching his fingers through the grates under the tunnels to grab . . . to grab . . . . Fingers of wind had met his and pulled! It must have been an elemental, one of those Aylard had described as just being. But Jet had merged with it then, and become wind himself.

Now that he really thought about it, Jet had always been able to merge with the elementals all around him. He just was the same as they just were. It wasn’t the same as what he experienced with Aylard and Doll. When he merged with them, they were aware of who they were, and so it was sublime. But the free elementals existed also. Jet realized it now, and his mother’s transformation somehow didn’t seem so final. She just was. Jet could accept that.

Jet went home to Arden to find Doll waiting impatiently in his rooms. “What happened? We saw the storm. I was worried about you, Jet. Nobody will tell me anything!”

“I’m sorry,” Jet said. “Elen—my mother—she’s gone.”

“She’s gone? Oh, Jet, I’m so sorry!”

Jet felt guilty. “Not like that,” he explained. “She’s reverted to an elemental state. Gone to us, but not gone.”

Doll hugged him. “You must be so sad,” she murmured.

Jet blinked. Sad? He hadn’t thought he was sad. Upset, certainly. Cheated out of time he could have spent getting to know the woman who had given birth to him, yes, definitely. But sad? “Yeah, I guess I was,” he said, realizing it was true.

In the end, it turned out that Merrell and King Roy both accepted Elen Estee’s transformation much more easily than Jet had. They also assumed Aylard had caused the thunderstorm, which was fine with Jet. He hadn’t meant to lose control like that. Jet suspected that King Roy’s unease around his former wife from Low City had a lot to do with his easy acceptance of her disappearance. Merrell kept his reasons close, but Jet figured he was just cataloging Aylard’s abilities to better learn how to control the rogue Elemental.

Queen Sephira came to Arden to meet the newest Family member. Merrell still drew the line at bringing Aylard to the King’s mansion in Darcy. Jet didn’t see why—Aylard could easily travel there any time he wanted to. But at least for now, everybody was acting as if they liked each other, so Aylard didn’t ask, and Merrell didn’t offer.

“My husband tells me you are a weather-worker,” Sephira purred, smiling up at Aylard. She sat at Merrell’s table with Aylard, the King, Merrell, Macek and Jet and Doll. Sephira had not been happy to see Doll and was doing her best to ignore the younger girl. Jet would have rather sat with the other students, but King Roy had insisted he sit with them, so Jet had insisted Doll had to sit with him.

“Weather-worker? I suppose you could call it that,” Aylard replied, shooting a measured look at Jet across the round table. “I am wind.”

“How quaint.” Queen Sephira’s cheeks dimpled. “You must be very powerful then. Only the royal Family are weather-workers. Are you sure you’re not one of us? An offshoot, perhaps, of my husband’s father’s many indiscretions?” As she spoke, Queen Sephira leaned closer and closer to their guest.

“I’m sure.” Aylard deliberately moved his chair back. “I am not one of your Family.” He concentrated on finishing his plate and avoided eye contact with the Queen, who sighed and went back to picking at her own meal.

King Roy picked up the dangling thread of the conversation. “Aylard isn’t the only one who can work weather. Both my sons have the gift as well.” He turned his eyes on Jet. “I’m hoping we can learn some new abilities from Aylard. He is strong, and his bloodline would be a welcome addition to our own.”

Jet choked on his food.

Queen Sephira gave Jet a nasty smile. “Where is Daniel, anyway? I would have thought he should be present at this table on such a momentous occasion.” Aside to Aylard, she added, “Daniel is the other weather-worker among the royal Family.”

“Daniel is on a mission for me,” Merrell interjected, putting an end to the conversation. “In fact, I’d like to meet with Jet and Aylard on that very subject in my office right after dinner.”

Jet and Aylard?” Queen Sephira turned her cool glance on Jet.

“Yes, Jet and Aylard. And Roy and Macek too. Perhaps the Queen could entertain young Doll while we are in our meeting?” Merrell raised his eyebrows.

Queen Sephira’s lovely face darkened. Doll quickly stood up. “I’m afraid I have a prior commitment,” she said with a patently false smile. “I promised Charles and the other boys I’d help them practice.”

“Practice? Practice what? Why is that girl teaching my Charles anything?” The Queen would have gone on and on, but Doll excused herself and fled the dining hall, leaving King Roy and the others the delicate task of explaining to the Queen why a commoner like Doll was able to teach her royal offspring how to utilize his own innate abilities. Jet smiled smugly.

The Queen turned her attentions back to Aylard. “I’d much rather have you teach my son,” she murmured, placing her hand on Aylard’s arm. “In fact, if you’d like, I could introduce you to him later this evening. Perhaps we could set up some private meetings.”

Aylard glanced from Queen Sephira to her husband. His brow furrowed. “I’m not sure I’m the right one to teach him this. Jet and Doll are more suited . . .”

“Nonsense. They’re both young. You’re much more mature. Roy doesn’t mind. I’d rather have you.”

It was clear Aylard had no idea what Sephira was talking about. Jet took pity on him, despite today’s events, and led him out of the dining hall. “Come on. I’ll show you where Merrell’s office is.” Of course, Aylard already knew where Merrell’s office was located; he’d used it when he had met with King Roy previously. But Aylard took Jet’s cue and followed him away from the table and Queen Sephira.

“What did she want?” Aylard asked, as the two of them sat in Merrell’s darkened, empty office.

Jet called up a globe of light, enough for them to see, but not enough to signal that the office was occupied to anyone who might be passing outside it. With any luck, the others would give them a little time so he could explain the facts of life to Aylard. “She wanted to merge with you,” Jet said wryly, watching Aylard’s face.

“She can do it too?” Aylard asked eagerly, making Jet laugh a little too sharply.

“Not in the way you are familiar with,” he clarified. “She wants to have a child by you. Strengthen the bloodline. Make her kid more powerful in the elements than the other royal kids. She tried the same trick with me when I first got here. I’m pretty sure she tried it with Daniel, too. She might have succeeded there,” Jet speculated. “Daniel was pretty infatuated with her.”

Aylard’s mouth hung open. “You mean—you mean—in the flesh?” He shuddered. “I have never—I would never—impossible! Why would I bring another abomination into this world?”

Jet couldn’t help grinning, despite the seriousness of the situation. Aylard was completely horrified. “It’s not that bad,” he said.

“Abomination!” Aylard repeated. It was enough to sober Jet. So Aylard hadn’t given up on his original agenda of destroying all Family who, according to Aylard, shouldn’t have been born in the first place.

“If you hate us so much, why do you keep your physical body?” Jet asked him. “Why not let it go and just be, like Elen, and all the other Family you plan to return to their elemental state? I don’t think you want to give it up either. I think you are glad you found some of us are like you, abominations or not. I’m not saying you have to have a baby with Sephira. In fact, just the opposite. The royal Family has this strange idea that in order to stay strong, they have to breed for more and more elemental abilities. I think they’re wrong, and I think that Doll in particular is the proof of that.”

“And you don’t think that’s reason enough to put a stop to them?” Aylard countered. “I admit, I do not wish to give up my physical form. Until I met you, I thought I was the only one left. Then to find out that you were born, that you’re an abomination but still can release your physical form at will, was overwhelming at first. I was no longer alone in this world. You understand what I mean. The free elementals are all around us; we manipulate them but cannot communicate except on the most basic level.”

And yet Aylard had had no compunction about freeing Elen Estee to this most basic state. Jet sighed. He understood something Aylard did not: the free elementals did merge with him every time he used their elements or became his inner elements. Which was more real? The physical Attania or the one that could not be seen or touched, only felt? The answer, Jet thought, was both.

“What do you mean, ‘to find out Jet was born?’” Macek asked, slipping through the door cloaked in shadow. Merrell and the King were right behind him. They had heard the tail end of Jet and Aylard’s conversation, if not the whole thing.

It was time they knew the truth. “Aylard is not Family,” Jet said, touching his globe of light to the floor and using the trick he’d learned in Arden’s library to illuminate the entire floor, throwing Macek’s shadows into the dark recesses of the ceiling. “He is the last of the original elementals who took human form on Attania two thousand years ago. He was never born—and he exists still because he never divided his own essence by mating with others of his kind to produce—us. Family.”

The Family had overcome the inevitable weakening of their elemental natures by deliberately breeding for elemental strength. In a way, it was the opposite of what Aylard had done, yet it had the same end result: strong elementals.

Some of those strong elementals now stared in shock at Aylard. Both Macek and King Roy had stricken looks on their faces as they faced what they had previously only read about in ancient books. Even Merrell seemed taken aback. Jet didn’t see why. Aylard was the same being he was a few minutes ago. He was old and powerful, but that didn’t make him infallible.

Merrell was the first to recover. “You can explain what that means to us later,” he said briskly, striding over to his desk. He shuffled through some papers. “We have bigger problems.”

“Bigger—?“ King Roy said incredulously. He stared at Aylard. “Not born? You are what we are supposed to be?”

Jet snickered, earning himself a dirty look from Macek, who was just as awed by Aylard as the King.

“Not now!” Merrell said, slamming his hand down on the desk. “Aylard, I may need your help. There’s been some trouble in the north. You said you could control the Sons of Men and they would listen to you as their leader.”

“What kind of trouble?” Jet asked with a frown.

“I haven’t heard from Daniel since he left with Reginald Archer over a week ago. And I’ve been getting reports from all over Attania about sporadic attacks against Family.” Merrell pointed his finger at Aylard. “You said you controlled the Sons of Men. Were you telling the truth about that?”

“How do you know it was the Sons of Men?” Aylard asked.

“Because that’s what the groups who are doing this are calling themselves,” Merrell replied grimly.

Aylard shook his head. “My men would never do that,” he said. “We work behind the scenes for the good of Attania. We have no need to gain credit for our deeds.”

“Then something has changed,” Merrell said. “Maybe you don’t have the authority you thought you did.”

“You can talk about it later,” Jet said. “We’ve got to find out what happened to Daniel. I’ll go with Aylard. If the Sons of Men are really behind it, Aylard can control them. If they’re not . . . we’ll take care of it either way.”

King Roy nodded. “You have my permission to do what is needful, Jet.”

Startled, Jet faced his father. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said, remembering Parrion.

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