There was a long moment of silence. Time seemed frozen as the words sank in. Then the crew erupted into applause. They howled in joy and hugged one another as though all of their problems in life had been washed away. Bucc didn’t react. He couldn’t. His whole mind had shut down, collapsing in on him in an instant. He just stared, completely numb to the world.
Captain Gus slapped Bucc on the back with a grin that split his face. “I always knew you had it in you, lad. A flamecaster born on my ship. Can you imagine that? Praise be to the Noodly One. Things are looking up!”
Bucc was breathing heavily. No matter how hard he sucked in the air he still felt suffocated. His vision started to blur. The next thing he knew he was laying on his back staring up at the stars. They danced chaotically until they were covered up by the captain’s face.
“Quick! Get him inside. I don’t want him to hurt himself. That little head of his is the most valuable thing on this ship now. Make sure someone stays with him at all times. Bucc’s got a stupid streak a mile long so I don’t want him trying anything reckless.”
Unseen arms lifted Bucc from the deck and carried him into the hull. He could feel damp trails working their way down his cheek. He wasn’t aware that he had been crying. Absently he traced the line with a finger and stared at the dampness. His hand shook terribly. Everything was starting to sink in now, and that only brought fresh panic.
“Let me go! There has to be a mistake. Please!” He started to struggle and fight, doing everything he could to free himself. Whoever was carrying him didn’t loosen their grip.
This couldn’t be right. Affinities were supposed to be reflections of your soul. Bucc was a green-fingered pacifist, the perfect template for those who were attuned to the earth. Fire was as far from that as was possible. The element represented power and war. It was an affinity with the sole purpose of wreaking destruction.
Fire was scary. That wasn’t who he was. That wasn’t right at all. The orb was wrong. There was no other explanation. Those with an affinity for fire were the most brutal warriors. They lived for battle and commanded respect from everyone. It was their purpose to be living weapons, tools of destruction against any who opposed them. Nothing but pain and fear were left in their wake.
“I don’t want to hurt people. The orb is wrong! Get off of me!”
Bucc screamed, his emotions tearing through his body and threatening to overwhelm him. He felt the heat in his chest again and blind terror overtook him as he fought harder to free himself. There was a flash and the men carrying him shouted out in pain. Bucc hit the floor hard. It knocked the air from his lungs.
He looked up and cried out. Fire burned across the wooden walls of the corridor. Heat rolled across him but he barely felt it. He reached out a shaking hand and touched the flames but felt nothing other than a slight tingling. The other pirates had retreated back and still had their arms up to protect against the blazing heat.
“Get the buckets, and be quick about it!” snapped Captain Gus from nearby. “Bucc, calm down or you’ll sink us all. If one lick of fire gets to the rum stores than they’ll be finding chunks of us on every island for a hundred miles. Take a deep breath and we’ll talk this through, okay?”
Bucc turned and ran. He didn’t know why or where to, he just needed to get away. Sparks of fire skittered from his skin as his feet pounded down the corridor. Conscious thoughts didn’t guide his feet but he found himself outside of his cabin. He threw the door open and ran inside to huddle in the far corner just as he had many times in his life. He grabbed the old boot and held it tight like a buoy out at sea. He didn’t even try to stop the choking sobs that racked his body.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before he heard his door open. Through blurry eyes he saw his parents step into the room with a caution that he had never known from them before. They looked worried, almost scared, and that hurt him more than he could have imagined.
Despite the fear and worry, Bucc could see something else in their faces. They were proud of him, happy that he had turned out to possess powers that every pirate secretly wanted. They had always tried to convince him that he shouldn’t aspire to be a gardener and now everything they had ever said had been proven true.
A jolt of anger flared within him that he quickly fought to smother. His face paled as he remembered just how fast his anger could catch fire now. He felt a fresh wave of tears teeter at the edge of his eyes.
“My son,” Bucc’s mum began in a soft tone. She took a step closer towards him and stroked his cheek. “I know this isn’t what you wanted, but you have been given such a gift. Think of all the good you could do. The Singing Seal will do so much better with a flamecaster aboard. You are so, so special, and this just proves it. Don’t you remember that Kaz always said he’d be a flamecaster? He’d be so proud of you.”
The words washed over Bucc meaninglessly. He didn’t look at his parents, his eyes instead stared hollowly at his own hands. It almost felt like they belonged to somebody else now. Familiar, yet a complete stranger.
“Just give it time,” his father told him. He was trying to look sympathetic but he couldn’t quite hide the smile that tugged at his lips and shone in his eyes. “As a kid, you always had a passion for the pirate life that you refused to accept after Kaz was gone. But our affinities don’t lie, Bucc. There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders now, but I know you’ll rise to the challenge.”
His mum reached out to stroke his hair and Bucc flinched. He tried to sink deeper into the wall behind him. She frowned then moved away. “You have a lot going on in your head right now. We’ll leave you to think things over.”
Bucc inched his head forward in a slight nod. He hadn’t really taken in the words but it seemed like an acceptable gesture to get them to leave. His parents stepped out of the room and closed the door behind them. He could hear faint voices from the other side.
“Who’d have thought that your Bucc would have an affinity for fire. If I hadn’t seen it myself then I’d never have believed it. He’s so, er, not a warrior.” That voice belonged to Captain Gus. Even when he tried to whisper his voice still carried clearly.
“It’s a big shock for him too. He needs time,” came his mum’s voice.
“He needs to pull his head out of the clouds and accept who he is,” retorted the captain. “A flamecaster is a treasure unlike anything you can imagine. If we use him then our ship will storm up the rankings. We might even make the inner circle. Or we could sell him. I know several captains that would pay top gold for one.”
The voices were growing quieter. Bucc sat alone. The occasional squeak of a floorboard outside his door told him that someone had been ordered to stand guard over him. He couldn’t leave even if he had wanted to. But then he didn’t know what he wanted to do, nor how he should feel. So he just sat there. What else could he do?
Hours passed by in a hazy half sleep without rest. Every time Bucc closed his eyes he saw flames playing across his eyelids. Lack of sleep and the stress of his crushed dreams were taking their toll on his mind.
There was a knock on the door and Captain Gus entered with a bowl of food. He took in Bucc’s red eyes and unsteady movements with a frown. He placed the bowl beside Bucc then lowered himself onto the bed.
“Eat up, lad. You didn’t stay around long enough for the feast last night. An empty stomach is no good for thinking clearly.”
Bucc took the bowl but didn’t eat. He stared absently into the watery soup. His stomach rumbled but he ignored it.
“You’re an adult now, so I’m going to speak plainly to you, Buccaneer. Things aren’t looking so good for the Seal at the moment. For any ships to be honest. Food and timber are in short supply. Everyone’s having to cut back. That means we need every bit of help that we can get.”
“You want me to fight?” The words came out as a hoarse rasp. Bucc only now realised how dry his mouth was.
The captain shifted his weight uneasily then sighed. “I want you to know what’s coming. Less supplies means more fighting over what little there is. That’s not all though. This uncertainty has created new problems. There is a pirate lord up in the north who has started to gather power. He has a mind of steel that one. They say he wants all pirates to live under strict rules, to strip us of our freedom. Rumours in the taverns say he’s building a crew of flamecasters to conquer the seas. You have quite the target painted on your back, lad. I don’t know that you’ll have a choice in whether or not you want to fight.”
“You think this captain will come for me? But I don’t want to hurt people. What good is a flamecaster who won’t fight?”
Captain Gus laughed aloud. “You don’t understand the world or the people in it. There are ways to make you fight. They can hurt you or hurt the ones you care about. They can manipulate and coerce you. Once you’re broken you’ll be like clay in their hands. A kid like you doesn’t stand a chance.”
“But you aren’t going to let them take me, right?”
The captain’s dark eyes settled on Bucc as he spoke. “A target on you is a target on the Seal. We aren’t even an Inner Circle crew. If this lord is as powerful as people say then we wouldn’t stand a chance in a battle. So the options are pretty simple. You fight for me so I can defend my crew, or I send you off for a healthy pile of gold and stay under the radar. What say you, Mister Jones?”
This was all too much for Bucc to process. Bucc had enough wits left in his head to know that his next words would decide his future. Cogs began to turn in his sleep deprived mind. He pushed all his worries and doubts aside and wrapped himself in confidence that he didn’t feel.
“You’re right. It’s time I grew up. I have to protect those I care about.”
The captain smiled. “That’s the spirit! Glad to have you aboard. None of us know how to train a flamecaster so this is going to be a learning experience for us all. With you on the crew we’ll beat back any ships that threaten to plunder our supplies and treasures.”
“Yeah!” Bucc nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll keep the crew safe. That’s a promise.” He patted his stomach and began to wolf down the soup. “I’ll need my strength though. Can I have another portion? I’m starved.”
“Of course you can, lad. A healthy appetite is a good sign for a growing man. Bruce!” A head poked around the door. The captain turned to address the pirate. “Go get young Bucc another portion of broth. I need to plot a course to one of the barren islands so we can begin your training. I knew you had it in you. Eat up! Today is a glorious day!”
Both men left. Bucc put the bowl back down. He gathered up his few possessions and shoved them into a bag. He didn’t know how much of what the captain had said was true, but it was clear that the safest thing for Bucc to do was leave. The last thing he wanted was for his existence to bring danger to his family.
He took a moment to look down at the tiny plant in his old boot. It represented a life he would now never get the chance to live, a dream that never had a chance to become reality. Bucc felt another pang of pain in his chest but he pushed it down. He placed the boot on his bed then left his cabin.