The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 49

Merging with five elementals was exhilarating. After the first inadvertent time inside the limousine, the five regularly soared along above the vehicle in silent, joyful communion. Even Aylard eagerly joined in. For him, it was a recapturing of his early days before every other Elemental besides him had died out. With each merge, it became clear to the others that Aylard both longed for and feared the elemental state. Those who were ‘released’ lost all sense of self, becoming one with their element, or elements, in the case of the royal Family. Aylard wanted to experience the bliss of his out-of-body state, but he was afraid he wouldn’t know it was blissful if he lost his sense of self. None of this was vocalized; it didn’t need to be. When all five of them shared their true essences in the merge, nothing was hidden.

Merrell, impatiently drumming his fingers on the door handle, snapped, “Stop the car!”

The enforcer cousin who was driving obediently pulled to the side of the road and signaled for the other two drivers to pull up also. Merrell got out of the car and shaded his eyes with his hand. “Do you see them? I can’t see them.” The cousin shook his head, gazing up into the sky. They were all curious about trying to let go of their physical bodies like Jet and the others could do, but so far, none of them, including Merrell, had been able to do it. Jet thought it was because deep down they were afraid that if they let go, they wouldn’t be able to get back to their physical bodies.

It was a valid fear. Who could say what would happen if they became their elements and couldn’t change back? Would they lose all memory and sense of who they were?

All Merrell could see was the orange sunset. “Jet!” he yelled in annoyance. They would be in Saffron in another hour. There would be reporters. The King needed to be ready.

With a blast of wind and heat, all five Elementals took form in front of Merrell, Doll being the heat, as her chosen form was fire. All five were smiling, even Aylard. Merrell’s brows drew down. He should be able to do this. He was stronger than his fears. “Show me one more time,” he demanded, and Jet sighed. Jet thought he was too old, too set in his thinking.

“Let go,” Jet said, as he’d said every other time they’d tried this.

Macek could do it. He’d learned from Doll. Tommy could do it. Merrell didn’t want to go into Saffron at a disadvantage. He was the Enforcer; it wasn’t right that his charges should be more skilled than he was. Merrell closed his eyes. He wanted this.

“Let it go,” Jet reminded him gently. “Whatever happens, the essence of you will always remain. You don’t need the form.”

Merrell knew that. Knowing and doing were two different things, however. He could see in his mind’s eye what he had to do. He only had to reach—there. “Bah!” He scowled, glancing away. He did not want sympathy just now. “We’ll be in Saffron soon. There will be a welcoming party. Get dressed.”

Jet knew better than to say anything. He slipped into the first limousine and buttoned up his grays. Doll rode in the third limo, as agreed—for now. Jet still didn’t like the precedent that it set, but he went along with Merrell’s advice for this first official visit. Merrell’s plan was to have Jet start off on the west side of Attania and make his way across, stopping at the major cities in between. It was as much for his cousins and siblings in power to meet Jet as it was for him to push his own agenda for Attania. That would come later, with time.

One of Jet’s older brothers ruled Saffron. Jet had never met him. He’d never met any of his family except for the ones in Darcy. King Roy had been prolific, spreading his power among his offspring all over Attania. That was how the royal Family stayed in control—only the strongest Family ruled the cities and towns of Attania—and the Family bred for strength in the elements. Jet was proof of that.

Saffron was a pretty town built right on the edge of the Western Sea. It controlled the waters and all the fishing in the area. Jet could see boats of all sizes from the top of the cliff as they wound their way down to Saffron. In recent years, many powerful storms had destroyed towns and villages all up and down Attania’s western coast.

Incredibly, as their motorcade approached Saffron, they were greeted with cheers from the crowds of people, mainly Family, who waited on either side of the street as if they were watching a parade. Some cheered for Jet, surprising him until he realized the news had broadcast his visit well in advance. Some cheers were for Aylard First. Jet imagined Aylard, in the second car, was gloating. He was a contradiction for wanting other Family to do what he himself would not. Jet shook his head and prepared to meet the brother who controlled Saffron.

Aron Estee resembled Jet only in that they had the same wiry build, dark hair and dark eyes. He had a pretty, dark-eyed wife at his side and a small child, a boy who stared up at Jet curiously. “My King,” Aron said with a slight incline of his head which didn’t match the icy tone of his words. He no longer would have the right to be called Aron Estee, since Jet had been proclaimed King. Only the new King’s children would carry his name. Aron would take back his mother’s name, as did all the King’s siblings once a new King was proclaimed. “I am Aron Bestron.”

Jet grinned, moving forward with his hand outstretched. Merrell intercepted him with a glance, which Jet ignored although he did stop short of shaking his brother’s hand. “Glad to meet you,” he said, including Aron’s family in his greeting. “This is Doll, my—“ Jet searched for a word. “—girlfriend, for now. Soon to be my wife.” He pulled Doll up beside him from where she had been waiting with Macek a little to the side. She reached for his hand and he sent a little burst of flame through it for reassurance.

Aron Bestron’s eyes widened as their two joined hands became bathed in flame. His little boy oohed in pleasure. “My wife, Lady Bethny, and my son Rynn,” Aron said. “Won’t you come in to my private parlor so we can talk? I’ve heard a lot about you. Did you really thaw out the frozen north?”

Later, when Aron had Jet to himself, he asked, “You are keeping Thomas Merrell as Enforcer? Usually, when the old King dies, the new King will choose his own Enforcer from among his contemporaries. I see you brought Macek Merrell and your brother Daniel with you. Are either of them strong enough to take over as Enforcer?”

Jet replied, “I have no problem with Merrell. He knows what he’s doing. And I have plans for Macek and Daniel.” Jet leaned forward, speaking earnestly to this new brother. “It’s essential that we change Attania. I have ideas on how to go about it, but I’ll need help from all of you to make it happen.”

Aron nodded slowly. “Does that mean you will not be replacing me in Saffron?”

“Why would I do that?”

Aron opened his mouth and closed it. He smiled. “I’d like to hear more about what you can do. I’ve seen the news, of course, but it’s hard to believe Family can really become elemental spirits.”

“It’s what we always were,” Jet said. “Aylard First can explain it all to you. He’s one of the original Elementals. The rest of us have the potential, but most of us have been human for too many generations. We’ve forgotten what we truly are.”

“But not you,” Aron said shrewdly.

“Not me,” Jet agreed. “There’s a reason for that—“

“Because you were lost?” Aron guessed.

“Partly. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be, so I did what I needed to in order to survive. That’s how I learned to let go of my physical body and become my elements.” He gave Aron an example, turning into a pillar of flame and back. “Would you like to feel what it’s like?”

Aron was afraid. Jet still couldn’t understand why a creature who contained the element of fire believed he could be burned by it. Aron was also a powerful Family ruler. He nodded. Jet let himself become fire again—Aron might as well face his fears—and moved through Aron.

“Amazing.” Aron rubbed his head and grinned. “Can I do that?”

“You have the potential. Some of us can, some can’t. Your son could probably learn it easily. It’s easier for kids who don’t know it’s supposed to be ‘impossible.’” Jet grinned back.

Aron questioned him about Aylard and what was different with what Aylard preached. As Jet explained, he saw the doubt creep back into Aron’s face as he realized that he might not be able to take back his physical form and might instead become an elemental for real.

They spent three more days in Saffron. Jet gave another news conference, again explaining his plans for manipulating Attania’s weather to promote growth, educating all Family in the use of their elemental abilities, and training Family and non-family to work alongside each other without fear. Word of what Jet and Daniel had accomplished in the north had spread, with news footage of the miraculously transformed northern plains into budding forests and ripe fields ready for planting. The news also showed footage of crowds cheering ‘King Jet!’ and others gathering to listen to Aylard First, who still spoke about ‘releasing’ Family to their true states.

In between, Jet, Doll, Macek, Daniel and Aylard regularly merged as Elementals, despite their differing philosophies. It was almost a need among them, to experience this aspect of themselves. No one else in Attania could do it yet. Jet caught Merrell looking at them longingly. It wasn’t so much about gaining a, granted, substantial new power. It was about belonging.

At one of Aylard’s speeches, a Family man pushed his way to the front and listened raptly to Aylard’s explanation of how the elemental state was the Family’s true destiny, how it meant they would become a part of Attania, free of all constraints, all ties, all needs. “Attania will sustain you.”

Aylard did not lie to the people. He told them they would not remember who they once were, that to the people they left behind, they would be for all intents and purposes, dead. But their nature was immortal, and the essence of them would never die, could never die.

The Family man raise his arms. “I want to be released,” he said. The cameras were rolling as he made his request, and so they caught the moment when Aylard drew the man close, murmuring softly to him and finally turning to wind himself so that he could show the Family man the way. When Aylard re-formed his human body, he was alone. The Family man was gone, released.

He wasn’t the only one. In Saffron, several people released themselves, with Aylard’s help, from their earthly existence. Jet gritted his teeth and let it happen. He had promised Aylard he wouldn’t stop it if people chose Aylard’s path of their own free will. Jet had his own successes, also. Aron’s young son and Aron himself were able to release their physical body and return to it at will. It wasn’t until young Rynn did it, just by watching what Jet and the others did, that Aron worked up the courage to give it a try. He vowed to set up a school to teach Family in Saffron, not just royals with more than one elemental skill, but all Family. Macek promised to help, arranging to return after Jet’s tour of Attania. Macek suggested that young Rynn might be ready for Arden, considering how easily he had picked up Jet’s transformation skill. He was at least as talented as Mattie, and almost the same age. Aron said he would consider it, and left it at that.

After Saffron, they visited several smaller towns on the west coast, including Tashkan, where King Roy had set the massive fires in order to curb non-family violence against Family in some of the more remote villages. According to Ben and Archer, the Western Quadrant of the Sons of Men was somewhere near Tashkan. Aylard, the nominal leader of the Sons of Men, though he had never until now traveled beyond the confines of the blasted lands, was a constant fixture on the news. It was going to be hard to find the Sons of Men encampment without alerting all of Attania to its location. So far, the Northern Quadrant remained safe from attack, probably because it had become the center of Jet’s revitalization of the north. And just the factory town above-ground was known; Jet had deliberately kept secret the existence of Archer’s Cave. Still, Jet did not want to expose this outpost of the Sons of Men until he had talked to its leader.

Against his better judgment, Merrell allowed Jet and the others to go as Elementals to the place Ben had indicated. He would follow along with some of his enforcers once they got rid of the ever-present press. The news crews proved to be both a blessing and a hindrance. They spread word of Jet’s agenda, and just as importantly, of his growing following among both Family and non-family. However, they followed the King’s progress everywhere, and unless Jet effectively disappeared as he was doing now to avoid them, they chronicled everything they saw. This quadrant of the Sons of Men was an unknown. Both Merrell and Jet agreed it was not wise to involve the press until they had a better idea of what they were dealing with.

Merrell had his own way of using his elements to travel. Once he officially parked the limousines for the evening at a fairly large town along their route, he surrounded himself and three enforcers with shadow, called a cloud, and rode it into the sunset following the path Jet had indicated. The five of them had gone on ahead, not needing to deal with the cars.

Ben had communicated with the leader of the Western Quadrant, so he was aware that Jet was coming. Aylard’s true identity as an Elemental, which still meant Family to most non-family, had come as a surprise to the Western Quadrant leader as well. Like the others, he had traveled to New Parrion to meet with Aylard in the past, and like the others, he was aware that Aylard was more than what he seemed. But that he was Family . . . was very hard to take. Even seeing the news broadcasts of Family voluntarily ‘releasing’ because of Aylard’s preaching wasn’t enough to change this western leader’s perception. He held himself stiffly at the entrance to his cave on the hillside, his soldiers ranged around him and up in the hills beyond, which the five noticed, but obviously weren’t supposed to. He did not invite them inside.

“You spoke to Ben?” Jet asked. “You know why we’re here?”

“I know,” the leader replied coolly. He still had not given his name, but Jet knew it from Ben. William Strong. His family had been wiped out last year by a fast-moving fire, and he blamed Family. Jet wanted to assure him that things like that didn’t have to happen anymore. Once local Family learned how to use their elemental gifts properly, and learned not to fear using those gifts, out of control fires would become a thing of the past. Jet didn’t say anything, however. He suspected, and possibly William Strong suspected too, that the fire that killed Strong’s family had been one the former King had created.

“I’d like to talk,” Jet said. Alongside him, Macek and Daniel kept Doll in between them. She could transform like they could, but she only controlled fire. On the other side, Aylard nodded to the Western Quadrant leader. That he had remained by Jet’s side was telling. Even Aylard could tell something was not right here.

“I’ve seen your little tricks,” Strong replied, still not budging from his place at the cave entrance. He would be surprised to find out that the use of caves was an Elemental thing, and probably Aylard’s idea in the first place. So far three Quadrants were housed in caves. Jet would have to ask Ben if there were caves anywhere in the Southern Quadrant also, although the land there was flat compared to the rest of Attania.

“Then you know that the Northern, Southern and Eastern Quadrants are no longer enemies of the Family. They are working together with us, and Aylard, your leader, has openly brought his beliefs about Family to the whole of Attania. I have vowed not to stop him, provided the ones he ‘releases’ choose it. I will not condone murder.”

“It’s not murder!” Strong spat. He glared at Aylard. “And he may be satisfied with just releasing Family to their just fate, but not all of us think that’s nearly enough. You—creatures—are unnatural. You don’t deserve to live like real people, and whether you choose to go quietly or not, the Sons of Men say you will go.”

Aylard spoke sharply. “William, I am still the leader of the Sons of Men. This new King of Attania is different from the others. He will do what he promises. I have given him our support. The goals of the Sons of Men remain unchanged. However, now we can work openly to achieve them. In time, it will be as we have always dreamed.”

“I saw you on the television,” William Strong said. “You’re one of them. You were always one of them. I’m ashamed I was fooled for so long. No more.” He stepped back into the shadows of the cave.

Aylard’s face was shocked. In that moment, Strong’s men fired their weapons at the five, thinking to take them by surprise.

Immediately, Jet threw up a barrier of light strong enough to repel the bullets which sped at them from every direction. Aylard and Daniel disappeared, streaking off to the hills to take care of the Sons of Men who had fired at them. He nodded to Macek to keep an eye on Doll, and walked out of his own barrier towards William Strong.

The man had his eyes shaded from the brilliant light, but several of his soldiers managed to fire their guns at Jet as he stalked towards the cave. Jet let himself go incorporeal and the bullets passed right through him. He swirled around Strong and his men as wind, ripping at their clothing and stripping their guns from their grasp, making them skid wildly across the stone floor and out the entrance. At the same time, he used wind to tumble the men into a heap inside the cave. It was less than they deserved, but Jet didn’t want to kill them. He wanted to teach them a lesson. He hoped Aylard and Daniel hadn’t killed any of the ones they had gone to disarm.

Taking form again, Jet towered over the Sons of Men who lay in a tangle on the cave floor. He called up light from that same floor, making them huddle superstitiously as the even white light rose all around them. “I said—“ Jet repeated, “I won’t condone murder. Not my own, or anyone else’s.”

William Strong disentangled himself from his men and stood to face Jet. “What are you going to do with us?” he asked.

“Not a thing,” Jet replied. Behind him, the light barrier, which Macek had taken over when Jet went into the cave, slowly faded. Macek and Doll remained in physical form, unharmed. Over his shoulder, Jet saw Aylard and Daniel touch down. Good. Everyone was safe. “Unless you force me to. I want to stop the bloodshed, not add to it. Now can we talk.”

Grudgingly, Strong nodded and gestured for Jet to come inside. First Jet, then the others, followed Strong into the cave which was still lit by Jet’s trick with the floor. The other Sons of Men scrambled to get out of their way. “Follow me,” Strong said, leading the way.

Jet followed him down a narrow hallway into a larger room, similar to Archer’s setup but on a much smaller scale. He wasn’t too worried because all of the five could transform at will and get out through the tiniest of spaces. He, and possibly Doll if she remembered how, could even move through the stone walls themselves if necessary.

Jet had forgotten about Merrell. He heard shouting from the cave entrance, and an ominous thud. Moments later, Merrell pushed his way through the entrance, glaring at Jet and Strong equally. “I thought I told you to wait,” he growled, as Jet’s stomach sank. Merrell couldn’t transform. Now they were vulnerable.

Strong’s face turned almost as white as Family when he saw Merrell. “The Enforcer?” he whispered in disbelief. Even the Sons of Men had a healthy fear of the Enforcer, well justified. Jet may not have wanted bloodshed, but the Enforcer was famous for his ruthlessness. Jet hoped it would be enough to protect Merrell now.

“We handled it,” Jet muttered as Merrell took a seat beside him. “We’re just getting ready to talk about an alliance,” he added.

“An alliance!” Strong said, color coming back into his face as his temper reasserted itself. “Not in my lifetime!” He pressed something underneath his side of the table and the entire cave rumbled as the ceiling and walls came crashing down.

Strong had planned to trap them all in this room if his first attempt at killing them with guns failed. He must have planted explosives inside the cave so there would be no chance of escape, using himself as the decoy to get them all to come into the rigged room.

Strong hadn’t understood the true nature of Elementals or he wouldn’t have sacrificed himself so needlessly. Jet and the others siply let go of their physical bodies and left the cave, re-forming once they got outside, to the utter shock and dismay of Strong’s men, who stared at them now from the hill on the opposite side of the cave.

Merrell! Jet’s heart suddenly constricted as he realized Merrell must have died in the blast, and he cast a quick glance at Macek, Merrell’s son, who must be even more upset. Macek’s hair lifted and his clothes ruffled softly as a slight breeze whirred past him.

“Whew!” Grinning sheepishly, Merrell materialized beside his son. “I did it! I guess all I really needed was a little motivation!”

Surprised at the relief he felt, Jet laughed and slapped Merrell on the back. “Welcome to the club!” he said.

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