The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 40

“Have you heard from Ben?” Jet asked. They sat at Merrell’s round table in the deserted dining hall. Papers were spread in front of them as Merrell pointed out the different places where attacks against Family had occurred.

Merrell shook his head. He wasn’t really concerned about the East. “I’ll give you a car and driver,” he said, back on topic.

“No need,” Jet replied. “We’ll go our own way.”

Merrell was skeptical. “Do you even know how to get there?” He moved some papers around and pulled out a map of Attania.

Jet grinned, waving the map away. “I’ll ask the wind.” Aylard looked up sharply at that, but he didn’t say anything.

Merrell nodded. “Find him,” he said grimly.

Jet took the time to explain what was happening to Doll before he met Aylard back at Merrell’s office. The rest of them remained in the dining hall, strategizing on what to do about the random attacks across Attania.

“You really know where to go?” Aylard asked when they were alone.

Jet eyed him suspiciously. “Don’t you? It’s one of your bases.”

“Yes, but I’ve never been there. I know where it is, but not how to get there.”

Jet could believe it. Aylard had recruited his Sons of Men from his stronghold in the east. His subordinates came to him, not the other way around. “Follow me, then,” he said, dissolving into wind.

Jet used what Reg had told them to find Ballind. He had never traveled so far as pure wind, and the sensation was exhilarating. When they reached Ballind, Jet really didn’t want to take back mortal form but he touched down as Jet, gray uniform and all. Aylard transformed next to him, also in gray, although Jet was pretty sure he wasn’t aware of the significance of the color.

Ballind wasn’t the Northern Quadrant’s headquarters. Jet hadn’t thought it was; Reg and Ricky had given up the name of this town too quickly. But it was close. Reg had told him before they left Parrion that he planned to bring Daniel to Ballind first, before approaching his father. Even with the supposed truce, Reg wasn’t willing to reveal the location of the Sons of Men.

“Okay, how do we get to their stronghold?” Jet asked, striding down the main street. Ballind was a small town, a little larger than Salter, but just as poor. The more Jet saw of Attania, the more he realized that most of it was barely scraping by. The royal Family suppressed both ordinary Family and non-family in their effort to maintain control. Or maybe Jet was reading too much into it—maybe Attania was just unable to sustain all of its peoples. He shook his head. This wasn’t the time for such contemplation.

A Family shopkeeper opened his door to sweep the sidewalk and froze as he saw Jet and Aylard walk by. He bowed his head and quickly went back inside his shop, shutting the door behind him. Aylard’s eyebrows rose.

“He thinks we’re enforcers,” Jet told him. Even Family were wary of Merrell’s enforcers, with good reason. They alone were allowed to use their elemental abilities to do whatever was needful, usually in the course of upholding the law—only, for all intents and purposes, the enforcers were the law.

They found a place to have an early lunch, but it was a subdued lunch. The other patrons ate silently and left as soon as they were finished. Word spread quickly. Soon, no other patrons entered the restaurant. “They know we’re here,” Jet said, finishing his sandwich. “If Reg or Daniel are still in Ballind, they’ll hear about us.”

Aylard cocked his head and gave Jet a crooked smile. “I thought you said the wind could tell you where they were.”

“And I thought you said you knew where the stronghold was,” Jet countered evenly, not taking the bait. Aylard didn’t believe Jet about the wind. Jet wasn’t sure he could do it, either, but it was apparent that Aylard, at least, could not. Interesting to know.

Aylard closed his eyes, concentrating. “It’s more to the north,” he said. “I’ll recognize it when I see it.” He yawned. “Are we going to sleep here tonight? I’m exhausted.”

That was a lie. Elementals didn’t get tired unless in human form, and Aylard had been human for all of two hours today. “Sure,” Jet said, wondering what the older Elemental was up to.

Merrell’s enforcers had investigated Ballind after Reg and Ricky had named this as their hometown, but they had quickly ruled it out as it was mainly a Family town. Jet wasn’t so sure. He booked a room at a small hotel but it was still early. “I’m going out,” he said to Aylard, who had already claimed one of the beds and was making a fair attempt at sleeping. Jet didn’t believe it for a minute.

Aylard had never actually said he would control his Sons of Men. He had been very quiet ever since Merrell had intimated that perhaps Aylard had lost his control over his non-family organization. Merrell had stopped short of accusing Aylard of breaking their truce, but it was close. At first, Jet had thought that was all it was. Aylard had come with Jet readily enough, but he had been content to let Jet take the lead. In fact, Aylard wasn’t really helping at all.

Jet prowled the town as shadow, sliding from building to building as he looked for signs of Reg or the Sons of Men. He didn’t even have to transform to do it; the Family of Ballind never noticed him as he flowed in and out of their spaces. There were a few non-family houses and one non-family shop that specialized in electrical devices. Jet took a closer look at the shop.

All of Attania’s modern inventions—cars, trains, televisions—were regulated by the royal Family and their subordinates, cousins all, who ran the larger towns. Anything that the royals thought were unnecessary or would give other Family or non-family an edge was quickly suppressed. Jet knew now that the Sons of Men had been secretly developing some of those forbidden technologies, like the flitters and the one-rail, to give themselves an edge over Family. It stood to reason that if Ballind did have an outpost for the Sons of Men, it would be in a place like this.

“Anybody here?” Jet called as he pushed open the door to the shop and dropped his shadows. A soft bell chimed. Jet was still in his grays, since he didn’t own any other clothes, and the clerk’s eyes widened as he came out of a back room.

“Can—can I help you?” the man asked cautiously. He was non-family: a short, balding man with brownish hair which was already turning to gray. He wiped his hands on a cloth around his waist.

“I’m looking for the Sons of Men,” Jet said, getting right to the point. He ignored the man’s quick intake of breath at the name. “In particular, a friend of mine—Reginald Archer. Do you know him?” Jet picked up a flashlight from the display case and clicked it on and off. It worked intermittently, so he shook it and a weak beam of light shone across the counter, illuminating the non-family man’s drawn face.

“N-no, sir,” the clerk stammered.

Jet looked up from the flashlight. “Would you ask around for me then?” he asked with a wry smile. “Tell him Jet is looking for him.”

The man bobbed his head up and down and was relieved when Jet turned to go.

“One more thing,” Jet said, turning in the doorway. The chime sounded continuously since Jet held the door open. “If you find him, tell him Aylard is with me.” He continued on through the door, but not before he noticed the clerk’s head jerk up at the mention of Aylard. He had recognized the name. Jet smiled with satisfaction.

When he exited the shop, he nearly collided with Aylard who had obviously been following him. “I thought you were sleeping,” Jet said.

Aylard glanced at the electrical shop. “Did you find them?”

“Not yet,” Jet said. “But soon, I think. Are you ready to go to the Northern Quadrant’s base?”

Aylard frowned. “Now? Shouldn’t we wait and see if they contact us here?”

“No, I think we should surprise them.”

“Very well.” Aylard immediately let go of his physical body, becoming wind. Inside the shop, the clerk had the curtains pulled to one side and was watching. Jet wondered if he had some electric device which allowed him to communicate directly to his base. If that was the case, their little visit wouldn’t be a surprise after all. Jet shrugged, and transformed to wind himself. He half-thought that might be the case.

As soon as Jet became wind, Aylard merged with him. It was more on the level of their encounter above Parrion with Aylard battling Jet for supremacy. Aylard did it so that he would know what Jet had found out. Jet found that interesting as well. Jet was not limited to wind, being an abomination and all, and he used that to his advantage, becoming fire to push his way out of Aylard’s essence. He resumed his wind essence and streaked northward, with Aylard right on his tail. If Jet could have smiled, he would have. Aylard was hiding something—but what? Jet put everything out of his mind except the sensation of being wind. He embraced the elemental wind of which he was a part, and as he had hoped, the wind brought him where he wished to go. Aylard still followed, a roiling, angry mass.

Jet spotted the Northern Quadrant’s compound while he was still some distance away. It was obvious to him only because it was so well-hidden and he had already been to Parrion. There were no houses, no town, nothing that Merrell could have found while he was searching for the base after Reg, Ricky and Jet had fled Darcy. Unlike the blasted lands, the ground above the Northern base was covered in pristine forest, which was right now covered in a thin layer of snow. Winter had crept up on them unnoticed. Jet found the narrow crevice in a hillside close to a thin ribbon of road which wound through the forest seemingly at random. He aimed for it and went right through the rock, not bothering to look for an entrance. Aylard was right behind him.

Just like Parrion, the Northern Quadrant’s base opened up into a wide underground cavern that was brightly lit and teeming with life. It was different from Parrion in scale—this city was much bigger. The cavern yawned widely into the distance where Jet could see what looked like natural light at the far end. “We’re here,” he announced brightly, unsurprised when Aylard didn’t answer.

They were waiting for them. The clerk in Ballind must have contacted them somehow. Twenty or more Sons of Men lined up in the large cavern facing the hidden entrance which Jet had ignored. When Jet and Aylard materialized, they heard the clicks as guns were leveled against them.

One man, older than most of the others, gave a sigh as he stepped forward. “I didn’t believe it,” he said, taking in their black hair and pale, pale skin. The fact that they had both just materialized out of thin air was telling, as well. “Is that really you, Aylard? You’re one of them?”

“I am not Family,” Aylard said stiffly. “I am an Elemental. Nothing I told you is false. This one,” he indicated Jet, “—is Family. He’s the royal one your son was sent to eradicate.”

Way to throw me under the bus, Jet thought. He could try. He’d find Jet wasn’t easily thrown.

“So Reggie was telling the truth.” The man, Reg’s father and the leader of the Northern Quadrant, signaled for his men to lower their weapons. “Tell me, can you hold him?” he asked Aylard with a nod towards Jet.

Aylard shook his head. “He’s more than he seems,” he admitted. He walked forward, leaving Jet to face the Sons of Men as he took his place beside them. “It doesn’t change anything. Our plan still will proceed.”

“Where’s Reg?” Jet demanded. “Where’s Daniel?”

“I’m here, Jet.” Reg stepped forward. “I’m sorry. I tried.”

“Where’s Daniel?” Jet’s voice became a growl.

“Ask him.” Reg pointed to Aylard.

Jet looked at Aylard in shock. “Was it ever real? The truce? Your promises?”

Aylard stared back at Jet, his chin jutting forward. “What are promises to abominations? You know I have never abandoned my beliefs. Why are you so surprised? You aren’t like the others. I asked you once to join us. The offer still stands.”

Reg watched Jet sadly. “I am sorry, Jet. I really liked Daniel, but orders are orders. I had no choice, really.”

“Is he dead then?” Jet asked woodenly. He had a choice. He could blast this base out of existence, and not even Aylard could stop him. Aylard probably wouldn’t care if he did. For all his talk about his Sons of Men, all Aylard really cared about was his own agenda, and that was erasing all Family from Attania and starting over. The stupid part of all this was that Family, with all their faults, had more in common with the Sons of Men than Aylard ever would. At least Family had feelings. Over the centuries, Family had become human with something extra. Aylard didn’t understand that, but Jet did. That’s why he couldn’t just destroy all these people out of hand.

“No, we were waiting for word from Aylard.” Reg’s father addressed Aylard directly. “Reggie told us you’d left the Eastern Quadrant, but we wanted to be sure of your orders, so we contacted Parrion. The leader there confirmed Aylard had infiltrated the royals and would contact us with further instructions.”

“Ben knew?” Jet asked, incredulous.

Reg caught Jet’s eye and pleaded with him silently for forgiveness, but Jet was past forgiving. Around them, wind whipped up where there should have been no wind at all. Jet clenched his fists. Ben was in on it. Ben! Jet’s shoulders slumped and he let the wind die down. All he had wanted to do was to get the two sides to listen to each other and solve their differences without destroying each other. But apparently he was still very naïve. The two sides would never see eye to eye.

“I want to see him,” Jet said.

“You can’t stop this, Jet,” Aylard said. “I will release him. First, I will give him the choice, like I gave your mother. But even if he does not choose the right path, I will still release him.”

Aylard never said that he couldn’t release Jet, that Jet was too powerful for him. The truth was, neither Jet nor Aylard could destroy each other. The best they could do would be to destroy the physical bodies, which both of them could re-form at will. It was an impasse.

“I still want to see him,” Jet said. He’d think of something—he had to! Daniel was his brother, and a friend. He wouldn’t let him die if he could help it.

Aylard inclined his head, every inch the benevolent ruler. They followed the Sons of Men down the long main street. Reg managed to get himself next to Jet and he whispered, just as they marched up the steps to a squat, brown building, “Don’t believe everything you hear. Ben hasn’t betrayed you. I haven’t either.”

That was all he had time for. The Sons of Men ranged themselves on either side of the entrance, forming a corridor down which Reg’s father, Aylard, Jet and Reg all walked. At the end was a cage just big enough to hold a large dog, or a skinny human if he sat with his knees drawn up to his chest. Daniel peered up at them with large eyes. He immediately focused on Jet. “’Bout time you got here,” he muttered.


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