The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 44


All eyes in the place were suddenly on Aylard. He looked very Family now that he no longer had to hide what he was. He probably would be horrified to realize it, however. Some of the Sons of Men who hadn’t been part of Aylard’s original revelation muttered among themselves and cast hostile glances at him.

Archer shifted uneasily. “Maybe we had better continue this discussion privately,” he said. He and Jet had both made their way across the room while attention was on Aylard, and now they stood together, the three Family, if you counted Aylard among Family, Reg, Ricky and Reg’s father.

“No, I want to hear what Aylard meant when he said Attania is dying.” Jet wanted Archer’s Sons of Men to hear it, too. That’s why he had insisted they be a part of this little discussion. He half-expected that Aylard was exaggerating, or twisting the truth to suit his own purposes. The more the Sons of Men realized their esteemed leader was not what they thought he was, the better for all of them. Jet saw some of their faces as they figured out they had been lied to about their leader’s true identity.

Aylard cleared his throat to be heard above the commotion. He gave Jet a withering glance, letting him know he was aware of what Jet was trying to do, and it didn’t matter. “I am known as Aylard First. I formed the Sons of Men nearly six hundred years ago to rid Attania of Family.” He ignored the gasps that rose up from around the room.

“Six hundred years!” Someone called out, shocked. Other voices took it up and the mutters grew louder.

Another voice, confident in anonymity at the back of the room, added, “We’ve been led by Family all these years?”

“I am an Elemental—not Family,” Aylard said through gritted teeth.

“I don’t understand!” A voice from the middle of the room called out. “You look like Family. You look like them! He said they are Elementals too. So aren’t you the same?”

They weren’t letting that part go, no matter how vehemently Aylard protested he was not Family. His own face betrayed him. Archer, the leader of their Quadrant, spoke up. “Listen!” Archer bellowed imperiously. “The Quadrant leaders have always known Aylard was something other than completely human. He has been our leader for centuries. Neither humans nor Family could live that long, so whatever he is, he’s not that. Aylard has our best interests at heart—us, the true people of Attania. If Aylard says he is not Family, then he is not Family!” Archer glared at his subordinates.

That meant Ben had known, too. Maybe not how closely Aylard was related to Family, but still. Jet couldn’t help feeling like a fool for trusting Ben. Reg glanced at him in sympathy.

Aylard inclined his head. For not being one of the Family, he certainly had the royal prerogatives down pat. “You are a good man, as was your father,” he murmured before addressing the crowded hall once more.

“I’ve watched the people of Attania struggle to survive century after century,” Aylard said. “I’ve watched those you refer to as Family multiply and crowd you out of your own lands. Family should never have been born. This is the core tenet of our Sons of Men philosophy. In their purest state, Family are elementals. The Sons of Men do not kill people; we free elementals from their physical bonds. We do this for two reasons: first, because elementals were never meant to take physical form, and second, to free up Attania’s limited resources for the true physical denizens of Attania who need them to survive.”

“Are you saying that Family is taking away the food and water that non-family need to survive?”

“Exactly. There hasn’t been enough food to go around for centuries. In another decade or two Attania will no longer be able to support its people. Too much of the land is barren, and what little useable land there is goes to feed the Family who rule it.”

The words rang true. Jet remembered Salter, and how furious Merrell had been when Patrick and his friends destroyed the crops meant for Darcy. Jet had helped Salter to recover by redirecting the rain there to speed up crop growth. “Why would any land have to remain barren?” Jet asked. “Family could make sure that enough crops grow for everyone in Attania.”

“Not all of us can work weather,” Daniel reminded Jet.

And most Family did not utilize their innate elemental abilities, either. The royal Family wouldn’t allow it. Ordinary Family were as frightened of Merrell’s enforcers as non-family were. It struck Jet as a stupid way of living. Family and non-family could help each other and make Attania a better place for all of them.

“And would you, if you could?” Aylard asked Daniel, who shrugged and looked away, uncomfortable. Daniel had been born royal. He had been groomed to take over, if not King Roy’s or Merrell’s place, then at the least the place of a city leader, so that he could continue to implement royal policy and continue to foster the artificial lifestyle of Attania’s royal Family. Aylard had a point, much as Jet hated to admit it. Jet took exception to the way Aylard was going about making his point, however.

“I would,” Jet said. Jet had not been raised royal, or even Family. He’d had his share of hungry nights even in the midst of one of Attania’s biggest cities. “I’ll help right now. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“It’s not that simple! One person, even you, isn’t enough.”

“So let me talk to the others,” Jet said, but Aylard was already shaking his head. It wouldn’t do any good. Merrell and most Family didn’t really care what happened to non-family. It would mean a whole revamping of Family policy in Attania.

Someone pushed his way to the front of the crowded room. It was the worker who had let Daniel help him with the flitter assembly. “Maybe we should listen to the Prince,” he said, finally recognizing who his visitors had been.

“The Prince!” Someone else called. “Let’s hear the Prince!”

“He’s not our Prince!”

Jet raised his voice. “I’m only a Prince by accident of birth,” he began. “But I am in a position to help if you’ll let me. I’ve lived among non-family for most of my life. I know how it is. I can explain to the King and the Enforcer how you feel. They’re not monsters. They will help once they understand what is at stake.”

“Family are not human!” A voice rang out from the back of the room. “You can’t expect them to have feelings like real people!”

“That’s not true!” Ricky protested hotly. “Jet has feelings!”

Jet looked at Ricky in surprise. He hadn’t realized he had made such an impression on the kid. He noticed Reg was glaring defiantly out at the crowd, too. Even Daniel seemed ready to defend Jet’s honor.

“The Prince! The Prince!” Several voices echoed.

The whole time they had been arguing, more and more Sons of Men (and women) poured into the already crowded hall. The ones at the back craned their necks to see what was going on. The buzz of nearly a hundred voices drowned out any attempt at further conversation.

"Enough!” Archer bellowed again. “Everyone! Back to work! Prince Roderick, Prince Daniel?” He faced the two Family Princes. “For the time being, I declare a temporary truce until we can discuss this further. Would you accept the hospitality of the Northern Quadrant?”

Jet looked questioningly at Reg, who nodded. “Come on, I’ll show you where you can stay.”

"Roderick. A moment.” Reg’s father stopped him. “At your word, I’m treating you as human. Don’t make me regret my decision. We’ll talk more later.”

Jet couldn’t help the small smile that played about his lips. This was a triumph. He looked over at Aylard, who wasn’t nearly as pleased as the Northern Quadrant leader. Instead of establishing his own superiority, Aylard had managed to plant a seed of doubt into the rank and file, and he knew it.

For an underground city, the Northern Quadrant’s base was really quite airy, unlike Parrion, whose crowded buildings backed into the rock walls. Jet doubted this place had the underground caverns of Parrion, however. There were reasons for everything. According to Aylard, those underground caverns below Parrion were the places where elementals first gathered as sentient beings. No wonder Aylard had not wanted to give it up.

Reg showed them to a free-standing brick house near the open end of the compound. Diffused light streamed in, strengthened by electric ones, which made Jet wonder all over again how they managed to generate power—here and in Parrion—without the Family’s knowledge. Then again, they had invented the flitters and the one-rail.

Daniel was in his glory. He wanted to know how everything worked. The worker from the factory had tagged along behind them and now spoke up. “I’ll take him around,” he volunteered. “For a Prince, he’s pretty good with his hands.”

Daniel grinned. “You have no idea,” he said.

Jet wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not all the Sons of Men were as ready as their leader to give the Family Princes free rein in their stronghold, and Archer might not be so willing to allow them to stay if he knew they were getting first-hand knowledge of their secret invention. Daniel dismissed Jet’s concerns, confident in his new-found abilities. “They can’t hurt me,” he boasted when the worker was out of earshot.

Jet spent the next few days exploring Archer’s Cave, as the northern base was jokingly called. It was another proof of human ingenuity, built by Reg’s grandfather. There had never been a natural cave under the northern forest. Sons of Men had painstakingly hollowed it out over decades, expanding it as their operations grew. That’s why it was wider and more uniform than underground Parrion, which was built upon natural caves.

The Sons of Men had migrated here in staggered waves over the years, recruited for their skills. Ballind, ostensibly a Family town at the border of the northern forests, was their unwitting outpost to the rest of Attania.

Jet asked about the other Quadrants. The Southern Quadrant, Ben’s post, didn’t have a set headquarters. Neither did the Western Quadrant. Ben, apparently, had only been leader of the Southern Quadrant for about a year, or roughly since he had disappeared from Low City. Before that, he had been their eyes and ears in Low City. Jet felt a little better about Ben’s betrayal. He might not have known about Aylard’s otherness until very recently himself.

Each Quadrant had its own agenda. East was the headquarters. Aylard ran the Sons of Men from his underground post, although he gave each Quadrant leader a good measure of autonomy. The Eastern Quadrant functioned because no one knew, until now, that anything at all existed in the blasted lands. The Southern Quadrant were the spies, the ones who kept the information flowing between the various groups of the Sons of Men. Archer’s group had been tasked with targeting specific Family. The flitters had been their first overt attempt at attack. The Western Quadrant also attacked Family, but rather than using inventions like the flitter, they made their attacks seem like natural disasters—the fires that swept through vast canyons, trapping mostly Family towns. They worked under cover of actual disasters, too, like the devastating storms that wracked the western coast, helping the destruction of Family towns along when it wasn’t glaringly obvious. King Roy had been trying to mitigate those disasters out west. Family wasn’t entirely oblivious to the attacks, but until recently they hadn’t realized it was as organized as it was. King Roy had believed he had wiped out the Sons of Men when he had obliterated the original Parrion years ago.

Aylard sat glumly by when they had their talks. He maintained that this didn’t change anything and that Family had to go for the sake of Attania’s survival. Jet argued that if Family worked together with non-family, they could solve the problem of food and resource shortages. He explained his idea about teaching other Family how to release their physical bodies on their own. It would take time, but he used Doll as an example that any Family, not just royals, could learn to do this.

“How would that change anything?” Aylard demanded. “We would still have too many mouths to feed. Family can exist on an elemental level; non-family cannot. It makes sense to release Family back to their elemental states. Then they wouldn’t need to eat food or use up valuable resources which could then be freed up for the physical inhabitants of Attania, the ones you call non-family.”

“And they wouldn’t need to feel, or talk, or love or hate either, is that right?” Jet argued. “Family have been physical for a long time—that’s what they are. If you take that away from them, you’re killing what makes them themselves!”

Aylard shook his head. “Humans are by nature physical creatures, with base instincts and the urge to procreate. Family have no instincts. Everything you do is by imitation—even the urge to perpetuate your species. You have no feelings except those you copied from the real humans. Oh, you have children, but there is no maternal instinct, no bond between parent and child except what you think it’s supposed to be. Family emotions are all learned.”

Reg said, “I used to think that way too. Then I met Jet. And Doll. You may have been right once, Aylard, but maybe Family is changing too. Maybe they’ve been physical for so long that some of those instincts are finally showing up in them.”

Jet thought about it. His mother had certainly never shown any maternal instincts, and his father had so many wives and children that it was impossible to believe he actually cared for all of them. But—“I think you’re wrong, too,” he told Aylard. “I have feelings. So does Daniel.” Jealousy, pettiness, but yes, even love and certainly friendship. “And that urge to perpetuate that you talked about? That’s not all it is—if you tried it, you’d know what I’m talking about.”

Reg and Daniel smirked.

They spent a few days talking in the same vein, with little budging on Aylard’s part, although Archer seemed to become more and more silent as time went by. Jet and Daniel got to see the inner workings of Archer’s Cave and the plains beyond it, and at the same time, the Sons of Men became familiar with the sight of the two Family Princes moving about in their city. Neither Jet nor Daniel were shy about using their innate powers over the elements to make life easier. Jet routinely used his lighting trick to illuminate floors, and Daniel laughingly showed a group of non-family children how to take a shower by calling rain.

A winter storm hit on the third day, blanketing the factories and the airstrip in another foot of snow. Daniel grumbled because they called off work in the factories and he couldn’t go in. They went outside anyway and Daniel was about to melt all the snow when Jet pointed out that if he did that, the runoff would flood the cave entrance. Instead, they used wind to push the snow away from the factories and the airstrip, making big piles of it at one end that they used to slide down.

Reg’s father came out to yell at them after a little while. “Don’t move the snow like that! It makes it obvious people are living out here.” There was little harm done, however. The way the hills dropped off, most of the factory buildings were hidden from plain sight. Only the bare strip where they tested the flitters was actually visible. Jet and Daniel called more snow to fall in one concentrated area, recovering the airstrip with a thin layer of white. They then flattened out the snow mounds they had made, to the disappointment of the kids who had been using them to slide all afternoon.

Archer came to see Jet later. “Can you really call weather to any area you want?”

“Yeah, but it takes it away from somewhere else—that’s the trade-off,” Jet told him.

“Would you be able to help us grow our own crops up here—in the spring, I mean. That way we wouldn’t be so dependent on getting them from other places. We could sell them to Ballind, too.”

Jet shrugged. “Yes. Daniel can do it, too. So can Aylard. Have you asked him?”

“Aylard doesn’t like showing what he can do,” Archer replied. “I can’t blame him. He doesn’t want to be associated with Family like that.”

Jet raised an eyebrow. Archer flushed.

"What do you intend to do with the flitters?” Jet asked. “I won’t let you use them to attack Family.”

They both knew Jet could destroy the flitters and the factories that made them if he chose. Jet hadn’t done that because flitters did have the potential for other uses. He only hoped Archer would see it that way.

Archer grimaced. “Nothing right now.”

“You talk about Family having no feelings, but you sent your own son on one of those flitters knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. How could you do that?”

“Reginald volunteered.” Archer spoke softly. “I tried to talk him out of it. But he believed in our cause. They all did. It’s for our survival.”

All of Aylard’s rhetoric hadn’t affected Jet as strongly as those soft words. He left Archer, a little unsettled. Was his plan really viable? Could he convince King Roy and, more importantly, Merrell, to not only negotiate with non-family, but to actually help them? To take away the long-ingrained restriction on ordinary Family from using their elemental abilities? Could he actually teach more than a handful of royal children—and Doll—to let go of their physical bodies? What did that even mean in terms of helping Attania to survive? Would they then not have to eat? But Jet liked food. He had no desire to stop eating. There had to be a way.

On the way back, he met Daniel, Reg and Ricky, who were kicking around a ball in the open end of Archer’s Cave. He started playing, and noticed Ricky’s long, flatbed truck was parked just outside. He must be getting ready for another run into Ballind for supplies.

Something suddenly occurred to Jet. “Did anyone ever tell Pat we’re all okay?” he asked.

They all looked at each other, but nobody spoke. That could be a problem.

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