The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 46

Jet turned to Merrell and asked, “This is a joke, right?” The cheering had died down to a few half-hearted calls, as the Sons of Men realized they were cheering for what amounted to the enemy. They had become familiar with Jet and Daniel over the past few days, in no small part because Jet insisted on allowing anyone who wanted to listen to his talks with Archer to attend. It seemed the common man—or Son of—liked Jet’s ideas. Now, however, faced with Attania’s King and its Enforcer, Family in every sense, they were coming to realize their endorsement of Jet might be premature. Jet thought so, too. “I mean, he can’t just quit, can he?”

Merrell shrugged. “He just did. My King.” He gave Jet an ironic little bow, and Jet frowned in annoyance. There was no way the Family would just give up a thousand years of rule. Something else was behind this. There had to be. However, Jet wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip past. If the Family wanted to pretend he was King, well then he’d be King! At least until he figured out what else was going on.

Daniel was still dancing around beside him, gathering up snow and sunlight and weaving them into a dazzling display far above their heads. Way to keep a low profile, Jet thought, disgruntled. Then he reconsidered. Family had, for various reasons, hidden their talents for too long except to intimidate and reinforce their own position of power. Smiling, Jet watched the show along with everybody else.

He caught sight of his father standing off to the side in earnest conversation with Aylard, who wore a self-satisfied expression as he listened to the former King.

“No,” Jet moaned in sudden realization. “No, no!” He sprinted towards the two, but Merrell caught his arm.

“Let him go, Jet. It’s what he wants.”

“No!” Wrenching his arm free, Jet ran to intercept Aylard. First his mother. Now his father. Jet couldn’t allow Aylard to talk any more Family into his ridiculous plan of self-destruction.

Aylard had other ideas. He used wind to raise himself and the King high into the air so that they were surrounded by Daniel’s light show. “Sons of Men!” he shouted, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “King Roy Estee has chosen to release his false physical body and become once more a spirit of this great land. He does this because he recognizes at last his true nature. He does this for you, for the good of Attania!”

Jet rose on a pillar of wind to join them. “You won’t remember who you were,” he said to his father as if they were alone in the sky. Around them, Daniel’s light-filled snowbursts gradually fell to the ground and faded away. All eyes focused on the scene above their heads, though nobody made a sound.

King Roy regarded his son calmly. “I know,” he murmured.

“Why?” Jet asked. Why would his father do this, why now, why in front of these others?

“I’m tired. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and frankly it’s a better alternative than actually dying.” The King smiled briefly.

“But I just found you!” Jet blurted. He hadn’t meant to say that, but it was true.

“I will still be here,” King Roy explained, as if Jet didn’t know Aylard’s whole argument inside and out already. “I will be a part of Attania again as I was meant to be.” He faced Aylard. “What must I do?”

For answer, Aylard dissolved his own physical form and passed through the King’s body. A heartbeat later, Jet did the same, thinking to find out Aylard’s intentions by merging with him. But it became a three-way merge, and Aylard merely showed the King how to let go. It was similar to what he and Jet both did whenever they released their physical bodies. But King Roy would never be able to form his physical body again once he released it. He was too much a physical creature. Once he separated the spirit from the body, there would be no going back for him.

The realization struck King Roy as he merged with both Aylard and Jet that this was good-bye. He merged with Jet while he still held on to his sense of self and poured reassurance through their link. This was what he wanted, what he had always yearned for without knowing it his entire life. No longer afraid, King Roy embraced the change and let his body go, becoming his elements completely.

Aylard withdrew from the merge, but Jet lingered, touching the essence that had so recently been his father. He felt the joy, that sense of just being, which was so seductive in this state. He understood it, even.

A moment longer, and what had once been Attania’s earthly King scattered across the open plain, melding with the earth, the sky, the water in the form of snow, alternately drawing shadow and light as it became one with Attania.

The Sons of Men were stunned at the fast turn of events, and shocked even more when Jet took back his own body and slowly floated down to earth again. Many of them had thought he, too, had been ‘released.’ After a moment, shouts of “King Jet” rang out again, a little uncertainly. He addressed them all. “My father the King is released to his elemental essence. He chose to release himself, do you understand? He chose it! Anything else is plain murder!” Jet glared at Aylard, who crossed his arms stubbornly and glared right back. “I will not tolerate anyone who tries to ‘release’ one of the Family against his will. However,” Jet lowered his head and took a deep breath. “I will not prevent any of the Family who choose to follow Aylard’s path.”

Jet pushed his way through the crowd and went to the room Reg had assigned him to as guests of the Northern Quadrant. He shut the door behind him and barred it with shadow. Merrell and Daniel had not reacted to King Roy’s sudden disappearance. Merrell might have known about it, but Daniel couldn’t have. Except for being a little subdued when Jet made his announcement, Daniel hadn’t seemed all that upset that his father was gone. Was it really true that Family had no true emotions? Then why did Jet feel so crummy right now?

Merrell was still the Enforcer. Therefore, Jet was very surprised when the older man knocked softly at his door and asked permission to come in. “What do you want me to do?” Merrell asked, perched on the edge of Jet’s bed.

Somehow, Jet had assumed Merrell would just take over. Merrell was the real ruler of Attania anyway, not King Roy. He rolled over and eyed the Enforcer. “Why are you asking me?” he said sullenly. “You’re the Enforcer.”

“And you’re the King, like it or not,” Merrell replied. “You made your position quite clear out there, so I’m asking you again—what, exactly, do you want me to do about it? Attania isn’t going to change overnight, and there’s still the problem of Aylard. Do you really think he’ll listen to you as readily as the Family will?”

Jet raised an eyebrow. The Family was going to listen to him? Why would they do that? Why would Merrell do that? It meant the man would give up his position of power. Didn’t it? “You’ll really do what I tell you?” he asked.

Merrell snorted. “Unless you start acting like a complete idiot. So far your ideas aren’t all bad. I don’t particularly want Attania to die. Aylard was right about that part. Attania’s resources are already stretched to the breaking point and we can’t survive much longer going on the way we are. Your father saw that more clearly than I did. Both Family and non-family will eventually die out.” He quirked his own eyebrow in an imitation of Jet. “But I don’t particularly want to take Roy’s way out, either. If you can find a way for Attania to support all of its children in all of their forms, I’m all for it.”

Well. Jet sat back against the wall. When Merrell put it that way, what choice did he have? “I’ll need lots of help,” he said, already figuring out the next step. “I can’t do this alone.”

Merrell rolled his eyes, but he stood up, motioning for Jet to get up, too. “Then you’d better come out and greet the rest of your subjects, King Jet. The Eastern group of the Sons of Men are approaching and Aylard is on his way to meet their leader.” He grinned. “You don’t want to miss that, do you?”

Jet grinned back and jumped off the bed. No, he definitely didn’t want to miss that confrontation! “Did Ben really contact you when he thought I was in trouble?”

Merrell nodded. “He was afraid he wouldn’t make it here on time. You’d better show him you’re unharmed before he starts a war.”

“He knows,” Jet said distractedly, his mind already on other matters. “Pat told him.”

Both Merrell’s eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t say anything more, falling in line beside Jet as they made their way back to the main hall. Non-family weren’t supposed to have the means to contact one another over long distances. If Merrell had thought about it, and perhaps he just had, he would have realized that’s why Ben knew to contact him in the first place.

Surprisingly, most of the Sons of Men had gone back to work after Jet left. Archer, Reg, Ricky and Daniel met them in the large meeting hall. Daniel smirked and said, “You’re King Jet now, Jet. Not King Roderick at all. Even the news stations have picked it up.”

“What?” Jet turned to Merrell for confirmation. “What news stations?” He didn’t mind being King Jet. He never thought of himself as Roderick anyway.

“We have our ways of communication also,” Merrell said snidely. “Did you think the Family would not announce its new ruler? I have news crews on their way up here. They should be here by tomorrow for an official statement. Don’t blame me for the Jet thing—you have quite a following on your own as Jet. I’m not surprised the name stuck.”

Jet didn’t need this on top of everything else. “You just gave away the location of the Sons of Men’s Northern Quadrant. I had assured Archer that he was safe.”

Merrell just looked at Jet, his exasperated look which said clearly Jet was being obtuse.

“I think we’re beyond that now,” Reg said, speaking for his father. “You’re King now, Jet. You won’t let anything happen to us. There’s no more reason to hide.”

Attitudes did not change overnight. Aylard was the best example of that. Just because Jet said so didn’t mean the Sons of Men would not be persecuted, or that they would in turn stop targeting Family. They all had a long way to go, but they had to start somewhere. Maybe an official broadcast all across Attania was the way to start.

Right now, however, he had the problem of Ben’s group, formerly Aylard’s group, fast coming up on them. What would Aylard do when he realized Ben wasn’t here to support him? Or worse, if Aylard’s men turned out to be more loyal to him than to Ben? Quickly, Jet explained the situation to Archer and the others.

“Do you want me to help?” Daniel asked, meaning did Jet need him to deal with Aylard since Daniel, like Jet, could not be killed anymore. Jet thought that was a good idea.

“Merrell, will you stay here with your enforcers as back-up in case this doesn’t go the way we want it to?” Jet asked.

Merrell nodded and turned sharply to go. He paused, turning back. “Jet, when all this is settled, would you teach me what you’re teaching the young kids? I’d like to try.”

“Sure.” Jet wasn’t sure Merrell would be able to let go of his preconceptions as easily as the younger Family could, but maybe. Merrell had surprised Jet today. He wasn’t as inflexible in his thinking as Jet had once believed.

Jet and Daniel raced towards Ballind. According to Merrell, Ben was about half-way between Ballind and Archer’s Cave. They saw the convoy of heavy vehicles and headed towards it, noting instantly that it was no longer moving. The reason became apparent as they took form near the front of the line. Aylard was already there in human form, speaking heatedly with Ben. He was probably filling Ben in on the situation in Archer’s Cave.

“Ben!” Jet called, rushing forward. Daniel was right behind him. “Glad you could make it!”

Aylard stared at Jet as he realized what Jet was implying. “You called him?”

“My King.” Ben fell on one knee, much to Jet’s embarrassment. So he’d heard already.

The Sons of Men who had accompanied Ben fell to their knees behind him. Many of them recognized Jet from his time in Parrion. Jet had saved some of them from destruction on the surface, and shown them the way home. Jet heard murmurs of “King Jet” from a few of them.

Aylard stalked forward. “The Sons of Men do not recognize Family rule!” he yelled. “Jet is not your King.”

Ben smiled. “Jet is not just Family. By your own admission, he is an Elemental. As are you. He is my King. And my friend.”

The Sons of Men cheered. Jet laughed. “Give it up, Aylard,” he said. “They aren’t listening to your crazy ideas anymore. They’re listening to my crazy ideas now!” Jet laughed again, realizing how true it was. “Come back with us to Archer’s Cave. We can still figure all this out. I already said I wouldn’t stand in the way of any Family who willingly choose your path. So you can have your say, and I’ll have mine. Agreed?”

What else could Aylard say? He grudgingly agreed, not the first time, and probably not the last. Jet figured Aylard would try to go back on his word at some point, but for now he was willing to go along with Jet’s plan. Jet’s plan. It suddenly hit him that it was all on his shoulders now.

Daniel sulked all the way back to Archer’s Cave, disappointed he hadn’t been needed to control Aylard after all.

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