The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 51

From Palmer, they made their way back towards Low City. Jet had mixed feelings about returning to the city of his birth. For one thing, Doll’s parents were there. They had to have seen the news reports and were aware of Jet’s new status as King of Attania. They probably saw the footage of all the eligible Family girls being paraded in front of him in each city, too, even though Jet had proclaimed Doll as his chosen Queen. Jet hoped they still had no idea about the other thing.

Aylard had been shocked when the group merged with Doll and felt the tiny spark of life inside her—they all were, but Aylard most of all. “It’s not possible,” he muttered over and over, though he did not elaborate on what, exactly, was not possible. That the unborn child existed as an Elemental? They still could not tell if it had a physical shape inside Doll’s body or not, but when they all merged as Elementals, it was definitely there.

“When we first took on human form,” Aylard said in a rare moment of candor, “those Neverborn who joined in the human way would sometimes conceive a fleshly being, as that’s what fleshly bodies do. But a piece of their true selves animated the new flesh and blood creation. It diminished them every time they created a new hybrid life. And the creation, more flesh than spirit, was weakened as well. In the end, all of the Neverborn who divided their true selves among their scores of offspring faded away when there was no longer spirit to tether the flesh.”

“And the offspring eventually became Family and forgot they were ever just spirit,” Jet finished for him.

“Abominations,” Aylard said mildly, but he didn’t mean it. Not anymore. Family had been combining elemental bloodlines to gain strength for centuries, never realizing their true nature was elemental. Aylard was the last of his kind, Neverborn, and perhaps Jet was the first of a new kind of Family. Or, if not Jet, then perhaps this child would be the first true elemental to be born among them.

“We were thinking of naming him that,” Jet quipped, earning himself a startled glance from Aylard. The man had no sense of humor. “Or maybe ‘Little Offshoot.’ I don’t feel particularly diminished—do you, Doll?” Jet joked about it, but he wondered if Aylard was right. Even if he was, Jet had plenty of elemental spirit left to last him, and anyway, if Aylard was right, he had too much for just one physical body. He could spare some. The funny thing was, he didn’t feel any different. Doll, however, was mainly fire.

Doll smiled. “I’m fine,” she assured him.

In the next several days, Aylard made himself scarce as Doll’s parents arranged for the two of them to be wed. Jet had to ask Merrell to convince them that it was all right for their daughter to marry a King. Far from being insulted that he had dishonored their daughter, they had been appalled at the blatant breach of protocol. Doll was not royal. Her blood was not worthy to be combined with the King’s. Jet bit his tongue so he wouldn’t blurt out that it wasn’t her blood that had combined—or at least, not only her blood. They would find out soon enough.

There was no royal Family presence in Low City. Once, Jet’s mother had been Queen there. More recently, Macek Merrell had taken over some of the tasks of governing the decidedly mixed city. But Low City had a bad reputation, and over the years since young Prince Roderick had disappeared, a string of royal administrators had come and gone.

To Jet, the subway was still home. He brought Doll to his secret room underneath the tracks when he needed to get away from all the preparations. Ben was returning to Low City with the contingent of Sons of Men who had followed him from Parrion. He would accompany Daniel and Aylard back to the underground city of Parrion where they would then start re-seeding the blasted lands. Jet had been right about that. Aylard had been responsible for the continued devastation of the east, long after King Roy’s initial strike had wiped out the above-ground city of Parrion. Aylard had done it to keep Family out of the blasted lands so he could further the goals of the Sons of Men without their knowledge.

But that time was over. The Sons of Men and Family were no longer enemies, although they might not ever share the same ambitions for Attania.

Jet wasn’t going with Ben, Daniel and Aylard. He was from Low City, and had grown up in the non-family part of it. Jet wanted to make Low City, rather than Darcy, his home. Merrell did not agree at first. Low City was not as easily guarded as was mostly Family Darcy. Merrell, as head Enforcer, had his base in Darcy. Therefore, it made sense. . .

Jet rolled his eyes at Merrell. “They can’t kill me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“It’s not,” Merrell grumped.

Jet realized what Merrell’s problem was. Merrell would not be here. He was afraid Jet would have to replace him as Enforcer after all. “You could move your office to Low City,” Jet offered, but Merrell only glared at him and walked away.

Later, Merrell took Jet to view two different luxury apartments in the heart of the Family section of Low City. One of them was the house where Jet had been born.

Jet picked the second one as a compromise when Merrell pointed out that Jet couldn’t very well live in Doll’s old room at her parents’ house. That wasn’t what Jet had had in mind. He’d thought to find a place on the non-family side of the Mattick River. In his own way, Jet had just as hard a time accepting he was Family as Aylard did. That’s what finally decided him to accept Merrell’s offer of housing. He was King and, like it or not, Family. It made sense to live on the Family side of town. Merrell’s shoulders sagged with relief when he realized Jet wasn’t going to oppose him on this.

“There’s a wing for the enforcers,” Merrell said as they toured the spacious building. Jet had figured as much, so he nodded and continued on. Maybe he and Doll could get a smaller place, just their own, on the other side of the river later on.

The King’s progress was far from complete, but the impending wedding slowed their travel plans down to a halt. The former Queen was also coming from Darcy, as were several of the royal children from Arden. Merrell and his enforcers scrambled to find suitable housing for them all. In the far north, where Jet and Daniel had begun spring early, summer had already taken hold. Aylard and Daniel planned to do something similar in the blasted lands. By this time next year, Attania would have a quarter more land ready for farming. With Family and non-family working together, Attania’s resources could be utilized to the maximum benefit.

Still, in Low City as in each city and town they had stopped at during the King’s progress, Aylard found followers for his way. Even though Jet explained to Family that they did not have to choose dissolution, many still chose to release their physical bodies and return to their true nature.

“That’s just it,” Jet complained after a rally where ten Family all chose to take Aylard’s path. “It’s not their true nature, not anymore. Family are not elementals; most of them can’t even become Elementals like me. They are human beings who have some control over the elements, that’s all. Why would they want to give that up for the unknown?”

Jet understood that Family who chose release did not actually ‘die’ in the sense that non-family did when their physical bodies finally gave out. He out of all of them knew that there was something more in the free elements than the rest of them could sense. The free elements were sentient, just not in the same way as Family was aware of their existence. But why would Family want to give up everything they had ever known and loved for something they had never even experienced? Until they released, they only had Aylard’s word for it that the elemental state was far better than their current existence. ‘Better’ was extremely subjective. As much as Jet loved the elemental state, he also loved having a physical body. Clearly, Merrell, Doll, Macek and the others—with the possible exception of Aylard—felt the same way. Why, then, was it so hard to convince other Family to try it his way?

“It solves your problem, doesn’t it?” Aylard asked. “Less mouths to feed.”

Of course, it didn’t help that Merrell agreed with him.

The news crews spread Jet’s message as well as Aylard’s all over Attania, so it came as no surprise when Jet’s marriage to Doll Spencer, a commoner, was officially announced. By this time, even Family understood that this was the beginning of a new era, one where accumulated power would not necessarily guarantee a privileged life. Jet felt vaguely guilty because, in actuality, it meant exactly that: without Jet’s tremendous elemental power, which at this point exceeded Aylard, Merrell, and every other Family who had managed to figure out the change to Elemental, he would not be King and his ideas would not be implemented. Jet hoped that, with time and enough resources that no one would have to do without, power itself would not be the deciding factor. In his short life, though, he hadn’t found that to be the case.

Doll’s parents ostensibly put on the wedding, but the royals saw to it that it was a wedding fit for a King, even if it was held in Low City. Jet insisted they hold it on the bridge between the two halves of the city, so on a warm morning in early spring, Jet and Doll stood at the very center of the bridge, with their families and friends on both sides, as they married. All of Attania watched Jet take a common Family girl as his Low City wife. As much as Jet insisted Doll was all the wife he wanted, the rest of Attania still didn’t quite believe it.

Mr. and Mrs. Spencer held hands as they watched their only daughter marry the King of the land. They loved Doll, that much was clear. Maybe that was the difference between Family who succumbed to Aylard’s promises of elemental bliss, and those who remained firmly in the physical: love—or the ability to feel love. Merrell loved his children, his country, his job. A lot of Family went through the motions, but did not really understand the feeling behind it all. Maybe those were the ones who were most susceptible to Aylard’s promises.

Aylard hadn’t attended the ceremony, which was a pity, because Jet had something special planned for the end. When he and Doll embraced as husband and wife, Jet gave Doll a signal and they both turned to flame, twining about each other as they rose up into the sky over Low City in a fiery display of their elemental nature. It was a risk, Jet knew, because once his father had burned the non-family section of Low City to the ground in retaliation for the perceived kidnapping of his young son. Jet did not want to send the wrong message to the people of Low City. Still twined around the flame that was his wife and the spark within her that was their child, Jet became water, his mother’s favored element, to gasps of amazement from the crowds on both sides of the river. Jet’s water flowed about Doll’s fire, and neither was diminished.

Slowly, one by one, Macek, Daniel, Merrell, and even Aron who had traveled up from Saffron to attend his brother’s wedding, released their physical shapes and became elements: wind, light, shadow, lightning which lit up the daylight sky, snow (that was Daniel) in intricate patterns. They joined Doll and Jet in their dance above Low City, reveling in the merge and sending their congratulations in unspoken bursts of approval through the link they all shared.

Incredibly, free elementals joined the merge, adding their good wishes with a light brush of presence before breaking away to recombine and separate again and again as they swirled away into the late afternoon air.

The Elementals touched down, regaining physical form again on the bridge. “Was that what I thought it was?” Macek asked in a hushed voice as the crowd erupted into cheers all around them.

Jet smiled and nodded. He’d felt the free elements before, but this was the first confirmation the rest of the Family Elementals had that free elementals were aware.

Well-wishers surrounded the happy couple, most of them unaware of what had just transpired beyond what they could see with their own eyes. It had been the right move for Jet. The people of Low City had been awed by their magnificent display of Elemental powers rather than frightened by past memories of devastating fire. And the Elementals among them had participated in the most intimate way in Jet and Doll’s union.

Jet had invited the whole city to their celebration, holding it right on the bridge and on the nearby streets so that everyone who wanted to participate could be there. He made sure the weather remained mild and the sky clear. At night, he illuminated the bridge with elemental light to the delight of the crowds who danced until morning. Jet danced, too, with Doll in his arms, although Daniel and even Reg stole her for a dance or two.

“Oh!” Doll stopped and put a hand on her stomach. “I felt it!” She laughed, and grabbed Jet’s arm. “I felt it!”

Jet danced her around the bridge and laughed with her. It looked like their child would be both human and elemental, like they were. Jet was glad.

Later that night, more towards dawn, Jet settled Doll in their bed in the grand apartments Merrell had given them. He was restless still, filled with excitement and finally optimistic about the future. He pressed a kiss on Doll’s forehead, smiling as she murmured his name in her sleep before she snuggled down under the sheets. She would sleep for a few hours still. Jet planned to be back before she woke up again.

Aylard had been missing since the wedding started the day before, but Jet had an idea where he might have gone. Becoming wind, Jet drifted down into the subways and down further, below them, to the access tunnels that ran beneath. Wind called to wind, and it wasn’t long before he found Aylard. “You missed my wedding,” Jet said, taking form next to the older Elemental.

Aylard didn’t answer.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready to go to Parrion?”

“I’m not going.”

Jet turned his head to look at Aylard. “Why not?”

Aylard closed his eyes and tipped his head back. “Everything’s changed. Even me. I thought I was right all this time. I thought the Family were abominations of nature. I thought I could change things to the way they once were, but the longer I’m here, the more I realize that’s impossible. Nothing is the way it was.”

Jet nudged Aylard. “What we have now isn’t so bad. Look at me and Doll. We’re having a baby, and it will have physical form and will also be a true elemental. Doll felt the baby move today.”

With a sigh, Aylard said, “That just proves my point.”

“Which is?”

“You don’t need me to go to Parrion. Daniel can work the weather. He can do everything I can and more because he controls more elements.”

“But Parrion is your land. Don’t you want to be a part of it?”

Aylard chuckled. “You know, I finally do. I’ve been talking about it for so long but until now I didn’t really want to let go. I do want to be a part of this land. Thank you, Jet.” He stood up, his head brushing the ceiling in the cramped tunnel. “Will you come with me, at least for part of the way?”

Jet stood, too. They were nearly the same height, that false Family build which made so many of them look alike. “What do you mean?” he asked, although he already knew.

“It’s time, Jet.” With that, Aylard dissolved into wind. It was nothing he hadn’t done a million times before, but somehow Jet knew there would be no coming back from it this time. Jet dissolved his physical body into wind also, and wrapped his essence through Aylard’s one last time, feeling the moment when Aylard’s conscious thoughts slipped away into just being. For a while, Jet just was alongside of the essence that once was Aylard. But Jet had a new wife waiting for him in their bed, and a baby waiting to be born. He broke away and headed for home.


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