The captain froze. “You shouldn’t have come here, Bucc.” The voice was undoubtedly Jesse’s. “Go back to the others.”
Bucc closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. “I’m not going anywhere. The three of us made a promise to Kaz. You’re my best friends and I’d walk through old Davy’s locker to find you both.”
Jesse flinched and made a pained noise then pushed Bucc away. The words of his mum came back to him, telling him of what had happened on the Seal. What had happened to Jesse.
“Jesse… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean-”
Jesse held up a hand, silencing him. “Let’s go to my cabin. Everyone else, get The Phoenix docked in the usual place.”
It was only then that Bucc noticed the rest of the crew. The handful of pirates all looked young, the oldest looking little older than Bucc himself while the youngest was half his size. He guessed that a good half of them hadn’t yet had their Awakening. They all looked at him with awed eyes or fearful expressions.
Jesse led the way to the captain’s cabin. Adward held the door open for Bucc then followed him in. Only a bunk, stove, and a table filled the space. A chest beside the bunk and a single chair were the only other items in the room.
Now that they were in private, Bucc tried to apologise again. “Please listen to me. What I did-”
Jesse cut him off once more. “I don’t want your apologies,” she snapped. “Look, this is just the world now. You can’t come back from the dead and change everything. Go back to your parents and try to live the life you want to live. Being here won’t be good for you. You don’t have the stomach for it.”
“I don’t care. Jesse, I don’t care about anything else except for being with you and Adward. So please, stop hiding behind that mask. I want to see my friend again.”
Jesse was silent for a moment, then seemed to explode. “You want to see? Fine then. See until you’re sick” She unfastened the mask and threw off her coat, then tossed her gloves on top of the pile of clothes. She stood there, her eyes burning with tears as Bucc looked at her wide eyed.
Above her waist she now wore only a simple wrap around her chest. Running across the length of the right side of her body was a raised mound of pink scar tissue. The wound marred her face and discoloured her skin, giving her the appearance of two different people.
Bucc could feel tears falling down his own cheeks now. This was all because of him. “This is all my fault. Jesse…”
“Shut up!” she said angrily. Her fists were clenched and her eyes were squeezed shut to try and stop herself from crying. “I knew this is what would happen. I don’t want your sympathy! I’ve spent a year coming to terms with this. A year where I thought you were dead. The Jesse you knew died in that fire alongside you. Now you waltz back into our lives, the same old crybaby you always were, and wrapped around you are those memories of the real me. I swore I’d never cry again, but look at me now. You bring out the weakness in me.”
She took a calming breath and spoke in a low, strained, voice. “You know what hurts more than these scars? Knowing that my best friend blames himself for causing them. You always take everything to heart. How could I put this on your conscience?”
Bucc hugged her again, this time careful to not press too hard on the burns. Both of them were crying freely.
Between sobs, Jesse tried to smile. “Don’t feel bad about this, okay. It was actually a good thing. At first I hated myself and how I looked so I hid. But then I found myself behind this mask. You remember that time you blindfolded me so I couldn’t see everyone staring at me? Well, it’s kind of like that. Wearing the mask, people can stare right at me and not really be looking at me. All of my anxiety disappears the moment I put it on, so in a way, these burns have made it so I can step up and follow my dreams.”
Bucc wiped away his tears with his hands and stepped back. “I’m happy for you. Let’s share our adventures and catch up.”
“I’m a captain now, Bucc. The safety of my crew comes first. How can I be sure your power won’t be used against us again? You’re too dangerous to pretend otherwise.”
“You aren’t the only one who’s grown. I’ve made peace with the fire. I can use it to protect people. I can’t promise that men like Pyrefist can’t overpower me, but I can promise that I will use my fire to keep those I care about safe.”
Jesse smiled at him, then suddenly remembered that she was standing there exposed. The pale side of her face blushed and she quickly bundled herself back into the coat. Bucc noticed now that, although it had a rough exterior, the coat’s inner lining was a soft, silky material. She sat on her bunk and motioned for Bucc to take the chair. Adward brought over a tray of cups filled with steaming tea that he had been boiling on a small stove in the corner. Bucc took it and felt the warmth soak into him.
Adward settled onto the bunk beside his sister. “You can go first,” he told Bucc. “I can’t begin to imagine how you filled the year between disappearing from the Seal to hurtling after our ship through the riftway. To say I’m curious how you did that is a pretty big understatement.”
“You aren’t going to believe me even if I tell you. And if you do, you might just have a heart attack.”
“Try us. The world has been a crazy place for everybody. We’ve come to expect the unexpected.”
“If you say so. Hey, Neri, come out and say hello. I want to introduce you to my friends.”
Neri wiggled free from Bucc’s shirt and settled on his shoulder. Jesse and Adward stared at it in confusion.
“This is Neri. She was one of the blanks that had gathered around Milla back when we found her. When my powers went out of control on the Seal, she and the other blanks came in and somehow transported me and Milla away from the ship. All of them but little Neri here was burned up in the fire. That’s why she looks grey. I guess I’ve left some lasting marks on two people I care about.”
Jesse reached out her scarred hand and tentatively stroked the burned membrane of the blank. Neri chirped happily and rubbed herself against the hand.
“Where they took us is the part you won’t believe. We were in an endless desert of white sand and black spires. The skies were filled with a tangle of thousands of riftways that all connected at a single point on the horizon.”
“The Shores of the Nexus…”
“That’s the only answer that made sense to us. We walked through that desert for a few days until we reached the point where all of the riftways joined together. There was a bottomless well capped by a giant golden seal. It looked like it could be opened, but it needed a key. So we jumped into the riftway instead and Neri directed us through it to land just outside of Cantruug. We met up with my Ma, then escaped the Ashenna to join up with the fleet here. And then I found you. To me and Milla, it’s only been a week or so since the fire on the Seal.”
Adward stared at him in stunned amazement. Then he bounded to his feet and grabbed a notebook and quill from the table and began to make furious notes.
“You have to tell me every little thing that happened. If I can piece everything together then maybe I can crack the mystery of the Nexus.”
“Sure. But first you have to tell me your side of the story. A year is longer to cover than a week.”
“Us?” Adward muttered distractedly. “Not much. A few months of sitting around while Jesse recovered. She hated all the pity and the uselessness, so we stole a rowboat and left without any real goal in mind.”
“We ended up sailing into a place known as Davy’s Teeth, a graveyard of wrecked ships that crashed into shards of rock just below the water,” Jesse continued where her brother left off. “Most ships give the place a wide berth these days, but it was no problem for our tiny boat. Well, it turns out that we weren’t the only ones who drifted to that place. The broken hulls had become home to a gang of runaways and outcasts. Something about Davy’s Teeth draws in the displaced souls of the young. To the children already there, we were just two more lost souls.”
“They call themselves the Tooth Fairies and they lived off moss and any supplies that drifted through the wrecks. Occasionally they’d lure in new ships to crash then plunder them. This is where I got the idea for the mask from since the Tooth Fairies wore wooden masks whenever they attacked a ship. So I put on a mask, and from that moment on I wasn’t the meek girl that never spoke but somebody that could command. With my leadership and Adward’s brains, we gathered the Fairies together, repaired a ship and set sail to offer the Ashenna some well earned payback.”
Adward picked up the story again. “What we lacked in crew and firepower, we made up for with unconventional tactics. The Fairies knew how to take on bigger ships and better equipped opponents, and I have a good knowledge of the riftways. Working together we made a good ambushing force.”
“This ship went from wreck to ocean predator, the Tooth Fairies went from lost nobodies to a dangerous crew, and I passed through flames as a cripplingly anxious girl and emerged reborn as a captain. All of us went through hardships to become stronger, just like the legendary phoenix was said to rise from the ashes. That’s why we voted to call the ship The Phoenix,” Jesse finished.
“It’s a good name,” Bucc agreed. “But why haven’t you gone back to the others yet? Your dad is worried sick. Surely you could do more good if you coordinated with Captain Steeledge and his fleet?”
Jesse shrugged uncomfortably. “You’re probably right. Going back just feels like stepping back into the person I was back then rather than the person I am now. I’ve found this freedom… wonderful. I’m scared that seeing Pa again will somehow shatter this new image I’ve built and remind me who I really am. Besides, what can I say to make up for everything I’ve put him through?”
“Don’t be dumb. You know Pa doesn’t care about any of that,” Adward told her softly. “Bucc’s right. The Ashenna are getting wise to our attacks now. There’s not much we can do to help by ourselves anymore. Maybe it is time to make an official appearance. By the Pirate’s Code, you’re an official captain so would get to sit on the council. Even at your age, nobody can deny your rank.”
“Don’t captaincies need to be certified by the Council?” Bucc asked.
“Not really. That used to be quite rare. Captains simply need to own a ship, have a crew that supports their position as captain, and show suitable ability and skill. Since new ships are less common these days, and everyone already belongs to an existing crew, having a new captain rise up from nowhere is unusual. Add in the fact that there hadn’t been many ways to demonstrate skills without any wars or leviathans and it makes sense that they needed another way to keep the standards of captains high. Jesse technically ticks every box.”
“Come back to us then,” Bucc asked her with a broad grin. “You won’t be returning to your old life, you’re a hero now. The first part of Kaz’s dream was to become a captain and you’ve managed just that.”
Jesse considered this for a moment. “Okay. I’ll agree to go back and work with the others on one condition. You have to join my crew!”
“Alright then. Adward, set us a course to the southern fleet. We’ve got some introductions to make.”