It was an hour later when Bucc finally managed to get away from his parents. He found Jesse and Adward playing cards out on the forecastle. It looked as though Adward would win again. He always did, but that never stopped Jesse from trying.
Jesse looked at the cards in her hand, tried to maintain a neutral expression, then sighed. She dropped the cards and turned to Bucc, welcoming the distraction from her inevitable defeat.
“You look tired. Your folks find out that you didn’t actually fight?”
“No. That’s the trouble,” Bucc said quietly. He leant against the railings and stared out at the endless blue below. “Trying to play up to their expectations is exhausting me. They’re so confident that one day I’ll open my eyes and realise how great this life is. This is a phase to them. They say that I loved battles as a kid, and that I’ll love them again when it’s time. It seems alien to them that people can have different ideas about how to live life.”
“So firing that cannon didn’t send tingles down your spine?” Jesse pressed, her eyes taking on that slightly manic glint. She had a weird fondness for gunpowder.
“Not the good kind. Look, I want to create, not destroy. Is that really such a weird dream to have? We all saw what violence can do when we lost Kaz three years ago, but nobody cares. Everyone grieved then went straight back to doing the same stupid things that led to his death in the first place.” He looked to Adward for support. “You’re not a fighter either. Back me up.”
Adward nodded. “A pirate’s life isn’t about fighting.”
“It’s about adventure.”
“Sorry, Bucc. That’s the way it is. Sailing stormy seas, exploring new islands, testing your skills in combat, it all fulfills a pirate’s basic need for adventure. That’s what Kaz taught me. Staying in one place watching plants grow over several months just isn’t very adventurous.”
“Well, neither is looking at the stars.”
Adward glanced up at the sky. “True. The stars are a map to be studied though. If you can navigate them then you can travel anywhere. Even to the Shores of the Nexus if we could just work out the way. Now that would be an adventure.”
Jesse snorted. “Now who’s living in a dream world?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Remind me how your goal of becoming a captain is going, little miss Can’t String a Sentence Together While Being Looked At,” Adward snapped.
Jesse seemed to deflate. All three sighed. They remained silent for a while, locked in their own thoughts. Bucc looked out over the rails and watched the waves. The ocean stretched out as an infinite expanse of blue that connected with the even bigger infinite expanse of blue that was the sky. There wasn’t a single island or ship in sight. Only the endless blue. The sight couldn’t have been more boring if it tried.
It was Jesse who broke the quiet. She played with her pigtails absently as she spoke. “We all seem a little lost without Kaz. Do you think everything becomes clearer after the Awakening?”
“Of course it will,” Adward said with confidence. “Adults always know what to do. You never see them worrying about the future because they’re living it, you know. It stands to reason that things get easier.”
Bucc thought about this. It seemed to him that all of the adults were somehow too similar. They all acted the same. Maybe the ceremony didn’t give them the wisdom of being an adult, but instead took away the curiosity of childhood. The thought secretly terrified him.
“Land ho!” came a call from atop the crowsnest. “Cantruug is on the horizon!”
Bucc squinted but couldn’t see anything yet. Jesse and Adward joined him at the railing. They peered ahead for a few minutes until Adward finally spotted a dark smear between the sea and sky. Following the direction of Adward’s finger, Bucc caught sight of the distant spec. Slowly but steadily the dot grew until it took on the clear silhouette of a wooded island. As they came nearer, the sea became shallower and the whole world seemed to change.
Vague shapes moved through the afternoon light, both swimming in the waters below them and floating through the air. Bucc pointed them out excitedly.
“Look there! I’m not used to seeing this many blanks together. Some of them even have forms!”
Blanks were the only living creatures in the world other than humans. They were transparent spheres that looked like head-sized bubbles, each one identical other than slight colour variants of their translucent skin.
“You think we should try and catch some?” Jesse asked. “Having a familiar would be awesome.”
“We aren’t allowed familiars until after the ceremony. You know that,” said Adward. Despite his words, he too watched the blanks with thinly veiled longing.
“I wonder why?” Bucc asked nobody in particular. “Can’t the blanks join with children, or is it just a silly rule?”
“We’re pirates, Bucc. I doubt it’s just a rule. Life is all about freedom from rules.”
“Is it? We obey the captain. That’s a rule. We have instructions about running the ship that need to be obeyed. They’re also rules.”
“Yeah, but they’re just common sense, aren’t they?” Jesse argued. “Nobody would get far with a badly run ship. We aren’t talking about silly stuff like ‘no dessert before supper’, or ‘be in bed by sundown’. We’re free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t risk the ship. Makes sense to me.”
Bucc shrugged. “I guess you’re right. We’ll find out soon enough.”
In the centre of the blanks was a large fish with a series of tentacles around it. Bucc watched it with wonder and sadness. Blanks were the only creatures in the world, but they had the ability to evolve. From the dawn of humanity, blanks had developed a relationship with humans. When a human and blank connected with one another, the blank would take on attributes of the human’s personality, the human’s soul giving the blank a new form. These were what became known as familiars.
Once a familiar was formed, it stayed by its human’s side for life. Only, familiars lived for hundreds of years while humans had a much shorter life. When a human died, their familiar was left to wander the world alone. Most returned to nature, never again to be joined with a human. Every wild familiar was a reminder of a lost human life, and a soul cursed to be alone.
By now the deck was beginning to fill with people again as the pirates began preparing to dock. The island of Cantruug dominated the horizon at this point. At several miles long and covered in rolling hills and trees, Cantruug was the largest landmass in a hundred leagues.
A large shadow loomed over the children. They turned to see Captain Gus standing over them. He wasn’t a big man, but his status as captain made him intimidating even if his appearance didn’t.
“Now then, me hearties, can I trust you three not to cause trouble when we dock?”
Jesse took a deep breath and tried to speak. “Y-y-y-y-ye.” She slammed her mouth shut and swallowed audibly.
The captain scowled at them. “This time next week you three scamps will be real pirates. Watch your elders closely, because very soon you’ll all be working and fighting alongside them. I don’t have room for anxiety, pacifism, or people who try to be too smart for their own good. Don’t forget that.”
He left them, shouting orders at any pirate who so much as crossed his sight. Bucc ignored him and returned to watching the island. The captain was a grumpy man who hated to part with anything, especially coin. Rumour had it that he had sold his own sister for the funds to become a captain. He didn’t like anybody that didn’t make him richer.
The settlement of Three-Potatoes was clearly visible now. The small traders’ port was a shanty town of wooden buildings that were vibrant with greenery. The Singing Seal pulled into the port and was greeted by a team of workmen from the island. The ship made the village look small and squat as it loomed over the collection of shacks. Captain Gus was the first pirate to disembark. He met the islanders and instantly launched into haggling with the workmen over repair costs.
A number of pirates made their way straight to the tavern. Others carried bundles towards the merchant quarter to buy and repair items and clothing, or sell what they had plundered from other ships.
Bucc didn’t care about any of that. He ran down the gangplank then tried to take off his shoes and socks without stopping. After nearly falling over, he threw them to the floor and jogged across to the nearby beach. He felt the warm sand between his toes and giggled.
Sand was nice, but it wasn’t quite perfect. Enjoying every footstep, Bucc made his way further inland, leaving the beach behind as he took to the woods. The sand gave way to soil that felt cold in the shade of the canopy. This was bliss. Nothing on a ship could replicate the feel of nature around you. The crunch of fallen leaves, the smell of hundreds of unique scents filling the air, all of the colours and sounds, it was beautiful.
He slowed his pace and allowed himself to soak in the peace and quiet. There was no creak of wood or background murmur of voices. Even the waves sounded distant. His fingers brushed against the smooth bark of a birch tree, then tall strands of wild grass, and dried leaves that had yet to fall from the branches. He tried to touch everything he could reach as he let the sounds and smells of the woods wash over him.
Only a small patch of woodland remained on the island. Most of the area had been dedicated to farming. The few islands that dotted the ocean were the backbone of life for all pirates. They produced the food to eat, wood for ships, and metal for weapons and tools. For a culture that lived on the waves, the sea offered very little to help humans to survive there since all the fish had mysteriously disappeared over fifty years ago, along with every other animal in the world. It was for this reason that the few pirates born with earth affinity were so important. Without their ability to nurture plants to grow faster there simply wouldn’t be enough resources.
Bucc stepped out from the trees into a clearing filled with golden wheat. Wheat was Cantruug’s main produce. It was the staple crop for a pirate’s diet since it was used to make bread, and more importantly, spaghetti. Since spaghetti was light weight, easy to store, long lasting, and easy to cook, it suited a life at sea well. Side portions of fruit and vegetables filled in any nutrients the filling main was missing. The wheat was highly valued, second only to the sugarcane that was turned into rum.
A single farmer watched over the field, a pale ribbon of smoke rising up from his pipe. He was a squat man with greying hair called Scratch Blackfoot. He nodded amicably to Bucc when he noticed the boy. Bucc had been to the island a few times over the years and had taken to watching the farmer work.
“Wasn’t expecting to see the Singing Seal back here for a few weeks yet,” Blackfoot said after greeting Bucc. His familiar, a mole like creature with a long tail, dozed lazily beside him. “Tell me, did you have your Awakening yet? Is that why you’re here?”
“Afraid not, Mister Blackfoot. The ceremony is next week. We’re only here for repairs after a skirmish with the Vigilous.”
“The Vigilous you say? Well. They were here a few days before you for repairs themselves. No doubt you’ve damaged them again now. You seafolk sure know how to keep us islanders busy. If you’re not careful we’re all going to run out of supplies. I’ve heard that a lot of islands are already hard pressed to meet demands. Then there’s talk of war up in the north. Troublesome times these are, young Bucc.”
“Hasn’t it always been this way though? Pirates fight each other, things get broken, then they get fixed again. Rinse and repeat.”
“Aye, that’s the way it’s always been. Trouble is there’s a lot more of us about these days. The leviathans and other predators used to keep folk on their toes. My old pops said that they couldn’t waste anything back then because one mistake would lead to a quick death. Without any predators there’s nothing stopping the number of humans from swelling. That’s more food and more ships that are needed. That’s why I hope you do turn out to be one of us earthers. We’re always needing more hands.”
Bucc gave the farmer a thumbs up. “On that subject, do you have any work I can help you with while I’m here?”
“Afraid not, lad. It won’t be long until it’s dark and most of my work is done in the mornings. Go, explore the village for a change. By the sounds of it you’ll be back here after next week anyway, so don’t worry about it.”
Bucc took Mister Blackfoot’s advice and headed into the village to try and find Jesse or Adward. He expected the other boy was off in the hills waiting for the stars to come out. He was usually somewhere quiet with a notebook. Jesse on the other hand was likely easier to find.
His instincts told him to follow the sound of hammering to the blacksmith’s forge. Set up beside it was a storefront filled with weapons of all kinds. It had a good crowd viewing its wares, and as expected, Jesse was staring longingly at a large blunderbuss. Bucc approached her and tapped her shoulder to get her attention over the hustle of the crowd. Jesse jumped and let out a startled cry.
“Do-don’t d-d-d-do that!” she stammered. She took a step back and pulled Bucc to the side. Away from the crowd Jesse recovered herself quickly. “I think I’ve figured it out,” she told him confidently.
“Figured what out?”
“How to get over my anxiety. I think I get nervous because I doubt myself in front of others. My mind goes blank and I just imagine all the bad things that could happen. If I want to be a captain I need to be top dog. So what I need is a ginormous gun!”
“Just think about it! With a big gun in your hands you don’t have to worry about anyone. Then there’s the thick smell of gunpowder filling your nostrils with its beautiful scent. Who could be nervous in that position?”
“I would be,” Bucc pointed out blandly. “Everyone has a gun. How would that help?”
“I just get a bigger one. People respect two things: charisma and superior firepower. Also, look how nice that blunderbuss is. That’s genuine bone, not wood, and black iron too. That’s a real relic of the past. The monochrome look and silver inlay are breathtaking. I want it so badly. Just thinking about it sets my heart fluttering.”
“I can’t tell if that’s an unhealthy attitude to take or if my pacifism in a culture of pillage is the truly damaging mindset.”
“Nothing. Never mind. Have you heard how long repairs will take?”
Jesse shook her head. “When I was passing by the captain he was still haggling over basic labour charges. The damage wasn’t too bad though. I’d expect us to be back on the seas before tomorrow night.”
“I was hoping we’d be here a little longer.”
“Maybe you want to waste your time here, but nobody else does. Can you imagine how much chaos there would be if a few hundred pirates were left bored for days with nothing to do but drink and fight?”
“Sounds pretty normal to me.”
“It’s worse,” she answered knowingly. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s the soil, you see. Too much exposure to dirt makes a pirate go crazy. They get landsick. Someone starts out feeling real antsy, then irritable, until full blown paranoia sets in. That’s what an old geezer told me when I was at the Klamnet bazaar last year. Only the earthers can stomach it.”
“Huh. I guess that means I really am going to have an affinity for earth. Awesome!”
Jesse shook her head with a grin. The crowd around the store had become smaller now. She fixed her eyes back onto the blunderbuss.
“I’m still holding out for fire. Water is a realistic second, but fire is without doubt the best. Just think of the respect I would have with that kind of power,” she said dreamily. She snapped herself back to reality. “Failing that complete miracle, I need to save up a lot of doubloons for a nice weapon.” She held out her hand toward the gun. “Wait for me, my sweet prince. We will be reunited.”
“Maybe if you just imagine everyone as a weapon of destruction then you’ll suddenly be okay. You do seem pretty comfortable speaking to them.”
“Shut it, or you’ll be the first person I make lick my boots once I’m captain.”