The Phoenix left the Riftway a short distance from the Isles of Frindor. Bucc was impressed by how smoothly the ship navigated the riftway with so few wayfarers. They had always fascinated Adward, and his research had obviously paid off. His control of air seemed to be best suited for aiding in riftway travel. The same couldn’t be said for Jesse, who was able to control large amounts of water but lacked any real delicacy.
The Tooth Fairies scurried around the ship with an energy not seen in older crews. What they lacked in strength and experience they more than made up for with an eagerness to prove themselves. Jesse had given them a purpose and proven to them that they could achieve great things.
Several ships started towards them. Bucc recognised Captain Steeledge’s personal ship in the centre position. As they neared The Phoenix, Jesse emerged from the captain’s cabin with her mask on and confidence in her stride.
“Let’s show them that we aren’t a joke,” she told the youngsters around her. “Mask up and keep your weapons at the ready.”
“Yes Captain!” they chorused. They each donned a mask and gripped crude spears as they lined up to either side of Jesse. Adward stood at her side and also pulled a mask over his face.
As had happened before, a platform was lowered down from the larger ship and Captain Steeledge and a group of his pirates stepped off to greet them. His eyebrow raised slightly at the sight of Bucc but the surprise was quickly smothered. His guards seemed on edge as they walked between the rows of masked spearmen towards Jesse.
Captain Steeledge stopped a few steps away from her and offered a slight bow of his head. “I am Lord Captain Steeledge, nominated leader of the Southern Alliance fleet. Words of your exploits are well known here. Please tell me who I have the honour of addressing.”
“I am Captain Reeds of The Phoenix. We’ve come here to offer our help against the Ashenna.” Jesse spoke clearly and confidently but couldn’t change the fact that she still sounded like a teenage girl. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the Lord Captain nearly doubled her height.
“I must admit,” began Captain Steeledge, “I expected someone very different to be standing here before me. Are you truly the sea devil that appears from nowhere to strike down Ashenna ships?”
“Don’t be deceived by my age, Lord Captain. I’m everything you’ve heard me to be, and I’m here to win you a war. You’ll find my crew are more than up for the task.”
The Captain’s serious frown broke into a low chuckle. “We’ll see about that. All the same, I accept you into the fleet. Tonight we will celebrate in your honour. Tales of your daring have been the talk of the taverns for weeks.” He turned to Bucc. “And with you you’ve brought us back Buccaneer Jones. I’ve just heard a report stating you threw yourself overboard and condemned yourself to Davy Jones’ Locker. You’re looking awfully healthy for someone who is dead. Dead twice over no less.”
Bucc shrugged. “My Ma always said it’s in our name. Davy Jones must be family, right? So he lets us come and go freely. We’ve always been lucky.”
“Let’s hope your luck holds out for a while longer then. We’re going to need all the luck we can get in the coming days. But for now we drink!”
They docked and made their way to the same tavern Bucc had visited before. Messengers were sent out and gradually the already packed building began to be flooded with more pirates as every captain gathered. When it looked like the tavern couldn’t hold another pirate, Captain Steeledge motioned for Jesse to follow him as he stepped out onto a protruding stage on the second floor that looked out at the main area.
“Pirates of the southern seas!” he announced loudly. “Today we are graced by the presence of a growing legend. Talk of a mysterious ship taking on Ashenna supply routes has been on everyone’s tongues, and now I can confirm that this ship is known as The Phoenix. Raise your flagons to celebrate Captain Reeds! She has agreed to lend us The Phoenix’s strength. So let’s drink to her and her crew’s health!”
The assembled pirates cheered and drank merrily in answer. Jesse stepped forward but didn’t speak or react. She didn’t need to. The mask did the speaking for her.
“That should keep them occupied for the evening. Let your crew mingle with the others. We don’t have that luxury I’m afraid. The Council is convening and you, Captain Reeds, have a seat upon it.”
The two captains entered the meeting room, leaving Bucc, Adward, and the Tooth Fairies alone. They looked at each other, not sure what they were supposed to do now.
Adward bit his lip, then shrugged and cleared his throat. “Well? You heard the Lord Captain. Go and enjoy the celebrations. Just remember that you represent the Captain. Got it?”
The Tooth Fairies filtered out into the crowd, instantly drawing the attention of many of the other pirates. Within seconds they were swarmed with people offering them drinks and asking questions.
Now it was only Adward and Bucc. “Let’s go for a walk,” Adward muttered as he removed his mask. “I never was one for celebrations.”
They left the tavern and wandered aimlessly along the beach. Twilight was descending upon the world, casting the seas and sky in a blood red that was punctuated by the lights of hundreds of ships. Neither boy spoke, but that was okay. They were used to the quiet of each other’s company.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Adward said softly.
“Yeah. It feels it, even though it’s only been such a short time for me. I never imagined that a few days could feel so long.”
“Time is relative. Some believe we should measure it by how much happens in our individual lives. In that case, it seems like you crammed a lot into two weeks. And anyway, it really is a long time even by normal standards. Think about it. From the moment we were all gathered together by Kaz, me, you, and Jesse have never spent more than a day apart.” Adward laughed dryly. “I never imagined how much fear I could feel thinking we might never see each other again. I don’t want to lose another friend. I missed you.”
“I missed you too. I just wish we could relax instead of worrying about this stupid war. A war that I’ve only known existed for a few days and am already sick of. I never thought I’d want to go back to the old days of sailing without a purpose other than petty raids and friendly skirmishes, but right now they look idyllic.”
“Just be glad you missed the start of this war. I didn’t know how brutal this world could be until the Ashenna began their invasion. It all happened so fast. Captain Pyrefist must have been planning it for years. His forces swept down from the unclaimed seas. In the time it took the bulk of the south sea captains to band together, so much had already been taken. Every single ship in the Ashenna fleet had a flamecaster aboard and every effort we made to stop them was burned away in a wave of flame. We never stood a chance.”
“Yet here we are,” Bucc observed calmly. “Still determined to beat them back. Pirates aren’t very good at logic and reason, are we? Our freedom means so much to us that we’ll throw our lives away to keep it.”
“You know, I’m supposed to be the philosophical one, not you.”
“It’s all just got me thinking. What are the outcomes? We lose and the seas are united under the Ashenna flag and the pirate way of life fades away. But what happens if we do somehow win this war. Do we just carry on as before, even though we already have more pirates than our resources can provide for? Food will still be scarce yet we’ll keep throwing big celebrations, drinking excessively and blowing each others’ ships up?”
“You trying to say that Pyrefist is right?”
“Maybe. In his ideals at least. Not in his methods though. There has to be a better way.” Bucc was quiet for a moment then chuckled.
“Back on the Seal, Pyrefist said basically the same thing to me. That my pacifism was a nice idea but would never work. That it was an impossible way to achieve peace. I think that violence is an impossible way to achieve peace. Pyrefist thinks this is a war of steel and fire, but really it’s a war of ideologies.”
“But how do you plan to win that war if you can’t fight back without destroying the ideology you’re fighting for?”
“I’ve been thinking about that too.”
“Careful. It’s dangerous to think too much without practice. You might break something.”
Bucc gave him a sly grin. “Just hear me out. I’m redefining the term. Pacifism is the opposition of violence, right? But violence is a little vague. We’re pirates, our very culture is violence. We enjoy bar brawls and skirmishes, settle our disputes with fistfights and pass the time by knocking each other around. But everyone likes it. It’s violence, but it never really hurts anyone. It’s just like getting hurt playing mastball, it’s all just part of the game.”
“Yeah, and you’ve always stood against all of that.”
“I have, and I still do. The difference is that I understand it. It’s consensual roughness. But it shows that we can use some kind of violence without hurting others. And that’s the line I draw. I will never willingly hurt another person, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t use any other methods to stop them from inflicting pain onto others.”
“So you want to fight without hurting your enemies. It’s crazy, but not impossible. Still, you’re just one guy. How much difference can one man really make?”
“Imagine that somebody found how to sail through the Shores of the Nexus. That would change the world. Ships could sail anywhere in no time at all. That was your dream, right? To be the man to make that discovery? You would be one man making a world of difference. Even here and now, Captain Pyrefist is only one man and he has built an empire and conquered most of the seas. Just think of the difference Kaz made, the difference he could have made if he lived. One man will always make the difference.”
“I guess you’re right. You still never answered how you intend to win though.”
“I have everything planned perfectly out.”
“You have no idea what you’re going to do, do you?”
“Absolutely none. Look, Jesse is the one with the ideas and you work out the details. Then I just come along for the ride. That’s how it’s always been.”
Their conversation was cut off abruptly by a peal of thunder that was so loud that the ground trembled and the air slammed into them like a physical force. He staggered back, his heart pounding at the suddenness of the noise.
Within seconds the beach was crowded with pirates who had piled out of the tavern to investigate. Bucc saw the crowd part as the captains emerged and made their way to the dock. A rowboat was tearing through the water towards them. Before it had even tied up, a scrawny man scrambled from the boat and rushed over to the captains.
“It’s the Ashenna! They’re coming!”
Captain Steeledge met the man and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Calm yourself, man. Tell us the details. Quick.”
“Their entire fleet has anchored just beyond cannon range. That bang just now was them amplifying the sound of their cannons to get our attention. It took me so long to reach you because I wanted to get an accurate tally of their numbers. I counted eighty five ships, Captain.”
“Eighty five? By His noodly appendages! They must have brought in reinforcements. That puts them at over double our ships.”
“Pirates of the South Seas,” boomed a woman’s voice. “This is your final chance to surrender. Lay down your weapons and give up your ships or there will be bloodshed unlike anything you have ever witnessed. That is the will of Lord Captain Pyrefist, and I am his instrument.”
“Do we have any visually impressive ways we can show them where to shove their surrender?” Captain Steeledge growled. “Everyone to your ships. Prepare for battle!”