The three enforcers Merrell had brought with him scrambled up the far hill towards the remaining Sons of Men at a signal from Merrell. Jet sent a swirl of wind around the non-family men, preventing the enforcers from touching them with light or shadow. Merrell scowled. “You’re protecting them?”
“They’re my subjects too,” Jet replied. “Let me talk to them first.”
“And have them try to kill you again? Weren’t the first two times enough?”
“Daniel, do you still have one of those gadgets Ricky gave you? The communicator?”
“What are you planning?” Merrell asked suspiciously.
The communicator wasn’t perfect. It couldn’t tell Reg exactly what Jet wanted, but it could send coded messages. Jet pushed some buttons. “The Western Quadrant is down a leader. I’m asking Reg to come and take his place.” He handed the communicator back to Daniel, who pocketed it. The thing would buzz when a reply was received.
Merrell nodded. “Now what are you going to do about them in the meantime?” He gestured up the hill, where the remaining Sons of Men huddled in a miserable group, still corralled by Jet’s wind which they probably didn’t even realize was protecting them from the enforcers.
Jet grinned. “Convince them I’m right.” He glanced at Aylard. “Care to come along?”
Jet and Aylard disappeared, to reappear inside Jet’s boundary of wind. Without Strong, these Sons of Men seemed unsure of what to do, reinforcing Jet’s belief that Strong had acted out of bitterness rather than any real conviction.
“Do you have families? Homes to go to?” Jet asked, as they eyed him uneasily. “You can’t stay here. William Strong is dead.”
“We’re dead, too.” One of the Sons of Men spoke up, braver than the rest. “You might as well finish it.”
Jet shook his head. “I could use your help,” he told them, beckoning for Aylard to come forward. “This is Aylard First, who formed the Sons of Men six hundred years ago.”
He had their attention now. They hadn’t known that. Family didn’t live any longer than non-family, so did that mean Aylard First really wasn’t Family, as he claimed? Jet could see the wheels turning in some of their eyes. He let Aylard take over. Aylard had a way of speaking that convinced people he was telling the truth—even when the truth was stretched far beyond the bounds of credibility. In minutes, Aylard had the hostile Sons of Men listening closely as he explained how he wasn’t truly Family, he was an Elemental, and that his ultimate goal had never wavered: to release all Family to their true elemental states, thus freeing physical Attania for the non-humans.
Jet left him there, and picked his way carefully down the rocky slope and up the other side, where Merrell met him with one raised eyebrow. “We’ll meet again when Reg gets here,” Jet said. “Aylard will keep an eye on them for now.”
“And how is that better?” Merrell asked sarcastically, but Jet had already let go of his physical form. One by one, the others followed suit, with Merrell last after a moment’s hesitation. The three enforcers were left to make their own way back.
Merrell joined in the merge with Macek, Doll, Daniel and Jet, finally experiencing for himself the sensation of just being, and knowing without thinking what each of the others was experiencing. Only Aylard was missing from their group. Jet, for one, felt his loss.
They remained in Tashkan where Jet sent another brief message to Reg via the communicator. Daniel told him he’d received an answer—Reg was on his way.
The next morning Reg arrived in a flitter, landing lightly just to the north of Tashkan. Daniel’s communicator buzzed, letting him know Reg was here, but the news crews had already spotted him since they were in Tashkan also to chronicle King Jet’s progress. They flocked to the landing site before Jet could even get there. So much for secrecy. Jet clasped Reg’s arm in greeting and leaned in. “I sort of meant for this to be a private meeting,” he whispered to Reg. “But I like your style.”
Ricky had flown his flitter in, too. With a grin, he informed Jet that Patrick was in charge of the communicator on the other end, and what could he do to help? Grinning back, Jet said, “Tell these Sons of Men I’m not the enemy.” Ricky promised he would.
While Merrell smoothed things over with the press, Reg and Ricky went to take Aylard’s place with the Sons of Men, which they seemed to accept with some relief. At least Reg and Ricky were human.
Aylard looked a little dazed when he came down from the mountain. “What’s the matter?” Jet asked solicitously. Now that Reg was handling the Sons of Men, Jet had a little time on his hands. He patted the ground next to him, and Aylard sat down, glancing around to make sure they were alone.
“They said I’m Family!”
Jet’s mouth twitched. What did Aylard expect with his jet black hair and pale skin? “So?” he asked.
“I’m not an abomination!”
“No one ever said you were,” Jet said to placate the Elemental. “Family is the only word they know to describe those of us who manipulate the elements.”
“But I’m not one of you!” Aylard shouted.
Ah, that was the problem. Aylard wasn’t Family, nor was he human. Which meant that, despite traveling with Family who could now let go of their physical forms and merge with him, Aylard considered himself alone. “Come on.” It had been a whole day since Aylard had merged with another of his kind. Jet gently flowed around and then through Aylard, his wind drawing out the essence of wind that made up Aylard’s true self. This is what we are, Jet sent wordlessly. Not Family, not even Elementals. Just—themselves.
Aylard latched onto that thought, sending one of his own which wrapped around Jet—I am, I am, I am, I am—
Inwardly, Jet smiled. We are.
They left Tashkan for the southern coast soon after. Reg stayed behind to reorganize the Sons of Men with Ricky’s help. They abandoned the ruined mountain caves for a base in Tashkan where Reg could still access the flitter if necessary. Before Daniel left, Ricky gave him flying lessons, the irony not lost on either of them. Daniel took the second flitter with him. Jet would have liked to think they were proving a point to the people of Attania, that Family and non-family both could benefit from this new invention, but the truth was, Daniel just liked flying the machine.
All across Attania, news of Jet’s progressive policies preceded him, and it turned out that flitters were not the only invention non-family had been hiding. Merrell frowned as he saw evidence of non-family contraptions that put some of their elemental abilities to the test. It wasn’t surprising; the inventions Family did allow had logical extensions which, until now, Family had suppressed. How could you have television and no communicators, for instance? The answer was, you couldn’t. Jet was right after all. These inventions would help not only non-family, but also the majority of Family who had been just as suppressed by the enforcers when it came to using their inborn elemental abilities.
In every town, Aylard made his speeches just as Jet made his. In every town, Family and non-family alike came out to listen. And invariably, Aylard’s rhetoric touched a chord in some Family members who willingly let go of their bodies to become pure elements. All of it was recorded by the news cameras which followed them everywhere. But Jet watched Aylard carefully. As soon as the public display was over, Aylard would disappear, becoming wind. He never sought the comfort of the rest of the Family Elementals at those times, preferring to be by himself. It also meant none of the others could sense what he was truly feeling at such times.
But while they traveled in between towns, Aylard and the rest of them joyfully merged their elemental selves because there was nothing else like it. Even Jet, who had been able to do this for most of his life, felt the joy of communing with others like him. The sensation was the same yet different from when Jet touched the free elements all around them. To his knowledge, none of the others could even feel the free elements, not even Aylard, who had been one long ago.
As much as Jet enjoyed merging as a group, there were times when he just wanted to be with Doll. It was hard to find time to be alone. When he was physical, Jet was King and had responsibilities. Whenever he took elemental form, the six of them, now that Merrell had become part of their group, were together in mind and spirit.
In each city they stopped at, Jet had to reassure yet another relative that he had no intention of replacing them with a younger version. Worse, he had to convince them he did not want another wife. The cousins tended to become offended when Jet rejected their young daughters. Each one hoped that his family would become the next generation of royals through such a marriage. They couldn’t understand what Jet saw in Doll, a common Family girl with just one elemental ability.
Near Ben’s hometown of Palmer Jet saw an opportunity to slip away while the rest of the royal party was getting settled in the country home of one of Merrell’s offspring, who was in charge of the whole area as there really wasn’t a large enough city anywhere. Most of the people in this area of the country were non-family. Macek had his hands tied with family obligations, as opposed to Family. Jet had already met the Merrell in charge of the region—Kelvin. He wasn’t at all like his father, or like Macek either. For one, he was much older, making Jet revise his original estimate on Thomas Merrell’s age—or perhaps Thomas Merrell had been encouraged to take a wife at a very young age in order to start producing offspring with particular elemental abilities—much like Daniel had been secretly seeing Queen Sephira for the very same reasons. This Merrell was also a lot more garrulous than either his father or his younger brother. He talked over Jet until Macek finally interrupted him by asking about his children, which started Kelvin Merrell on a whole new topic. The two of them cornered their father and wandered off. Daniel was out tinkering with the flitter, and Jet had no idea where Aylard had gotten to, nor did he particularly care at that moment.
He nibbled on Doll’s ear, making her turn around in his arms. Oh, yes, definitely human form was better for some things. Jet tugged on Doll’s arm so she would follow him. They sneaked out, wrapping themselves in shadow until they passed the gaggle of newspeople outside Kelvin’s mansion. Jet didn’t want to let go of physical Doll.
Laughing, they ran down the country road until they were out of sight of the mansion. Then, dropping the shadows, Jet took Doll in his arms and kissed her. “Let’s go somewhere private,” he said, already anticipating another kind of merging. The only place Jet knew in Palmer was Ben’s old house, which had served as the headquarters of the Southern Quadrant of the Sons of Men while Ben was its leader. Jet wasn’t sure if that was still the case.
“Everybody is going to wonder where we went,” Doll said.
“Let them,” Jet said, tugging on Doll’s arm again. Eventually they both transformed, and Jet carried the fire essence of Doll within his wind essence so they could cover the distance quickly. Ben’s old house was boarded up and a sign hung on the front door saying that the restaurant was closed for the season. Jet wondered where the Sons of Men had gone and who had taken over since Ben had left. They seeped through a small crack in an upstairs windowsill and found an empty bedroom.
“Doll Spencer,” Jet said, holding both her hands in his. “I think I love you.”
She burst out laughing. “You asked me to be your wife before you told me you loved me! Typical Family man!”
Jet put on a hurt expression. “I think I asked you to be my Queen,” he corrected. “I already consider you my wife.”
“You do, do you?” Smiling, Doll leaned into Jet and put her arms around her neck so she could kiss him.
Jet tumbled her onto the bed and pulled at her clothes. Sometimes elemental form was easier, but this form had its advantages, too. They made love on the bed, reveling in the sensation of skin against skin, of the rough blankets and even the stale smell of dust that permeated the small bedroom. At the end, when they both lay tired and satisfied in each other’s arms, Jet took them to elemental form again, and their essences swirled into one, one thought, one mind, one being—
Doll was fire, pure and simple. Jet was fire and wind and light and dark. He was water and earth, and more. But in the heart of them, a tiny spark burned that was all of those things and yet not Doll and not Jet. He dropped jarringly onto the bed, taking back his human form in shock. Doll was quick to materialize beside him. Jet stared at her. In this form it was too soon to tell, but . . . could it be? “Transform again,” Jet ordered, more gruffly than he intended.
But Doll was worried too. She became fire, and Jet, still in physical form, studied her carefully. There was something not-fire at her center. Jet let his human body slip away and he became fire so he could merge with Doll, element to element. The spark brightened, growing stronger as it seemed to recognize him. It was part of him and part of Doll too, but it was also something else. Their child.
Coming back, Jet grinned. “Well this is interesting.”
None of the other Family had conceived a baby while transformed—Jet wasn’t even sure when it had happened. Was it while they were human, or while they were elementals? The baby certainly was an elemental, although it remained securely within Doll’s core of fire. Would it grow inside her as a human baby at the same time, or would it remain pure elemental? The others were going to sense the new being the moment they all merged again. Jet couldn’t help wondering what Aylard was going to think about the whole matter. “Our little abomination,” he said fondly, rubbing Doll’s belly.