Bucc, Jesse, and Adward returned to The Phoenix to prepare for the coming battle. Messages between captains were exchanged by dozens of flying familiars that criss-crossed through the air between the ships.
The Ashenna fleet was visible as a dark smear that seemed to fill the horizon. The mirth and celebrations of the last hour were faded memories already. The southern pirates knew that they were beat but nobody seemed quite willing to admit it.
“What grand plan does Captain Steeledge have then?” Adward asked his sister after Jesse had finished reading another of the Lord Captain’s messages.
“Twenty ships are to stay here in the Isles while the other seventeen peel away and try to flank the Ashenna fleet.”
“That doesn’t sound like a winning plan to me,” Adward said sourly. “They have the numbers to surround the Isles and have ships guarding their parameters. He must have something else up his sleeve.”
“I don’t think so,” Jesse admitted. “His whole plan is based on mobility. Around the Isles they can’t use the strength of their full fleet, and the ships they do use can’t turn as fast as the ships Captain Steeledge has assigned to stay there. Our flanking ships will be acting independently. He hopes that we’ll be hard targets to hit while the Ashenna are so closely packed together that we’d struggle to miss even with wild, unaimed cannonfire.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“What are they doing with that floating village?” Bucc observed.
“It’s rigged with all of our gunpowder reserves,” Jesse told him gleefully. “The plan is to sail it right into the middle of their fleet. Unless the Ashenna ships focus their cannons on it, they’ll struggle to bring it down in time. At that point we get to witness the biggest bang in pirate history. Seeing that will make this war worth the effort.”
A bell rang, telling them that a rowboat was approaching them. The boat carried only Bucc’s parents. They were quickly pulled aboard. Bucc realised that he probably should have found the time to let them know he was safe after jumping overboard back on The Lady Hope. They hung back nervously for a moment so Bucc rushed over to give them a hug.
“We have so much that we want to talk with you about,” his mum began, “But I’m afraid we’re here on business. Your friend Milla is showing signs of waking up and we thought you’d like to know.”
Bucc couldn’t help but smile. “That sounds right. She wouldn’t miss the chance to fight against the Ashenna. Can I see her?”
“We were hoping you would. Seeing a friendly face when she wakes will do her good. A girl like her could be quite dangerous if she wakes up in an unfamiliar place, scared and confused.”
Bucc agreed. He joined his parents and made the short trip over to The Lady Hope. As they rowed, a million feelings drifted through his head. This could be the last time he ever had a chance to speak to his parents if the battle went poorly. Being shoulder to shoulder with them made that reality somehow more solid than when he had been lost.
“You worried?” his mum asked, sensing his mood.
“Worried is putting it lightly. I’m terrified. Sure, I’m scared of fighting, but the thought of everyone else risking their lives makes it hard to breathe.”
“I think you’re right,” his father nodded. “I’ve been in more battles than I can count, but it was always just fun and games. Now, everything I hold dear is on the line. That’s a lot of pressure to carry. Whatever happens, Bucc, I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”
“The same goes for me,” his mum agreed. “I’d love to fight at your side, but I understand that you belong somewhere else. All these years I’ve wanted you to become a true pirate, and now that you are standing proud against the biggest threat we’ve ever known I just want you to run and be safe. The human heart is a strange thing, isn’t it?”
“Can we win?”
“We can try. Captain Steeledge is the greatest pirate alive, and under his command are the bravest crews in the southern seas. He’s a hero, and frankly anybody who has chosen to fight here is a hero too. What do the Ashenna have to face that?”
“Superior numbers, standardised training and a wealth of flamecasters,” his father answered dryly. Bucc’s mum glared at him. He coughed awkwardly. “Right, sorry. What I mean is, all that scary sounding stuff doesn’t stand up to good old fashioned passion and bravery. Gods love plucky underdogs. Whenever you have a million-in-one chance of winning, it stands to reason that you have a ninety percent success rate.”
“I don’t think that maths adds up…”
They arrived at The Lady Hope and were quickly lifted aboard. As they crossed the deck, Captain Ackeridge inched her head towards Bucc but didn’t speak. He had technically deserted her crew and joined another without asking her.
It wasn’t long before they entered Milla’s cabin. The room was dark but the girl’s deathly pale skin and blonde hair seemed to glow in the gloom. She looked so frail laying there alone.
Bucc’s mum lit a candle and placed it on a table beside the bunk. Bcc sat besideMilla and could hear her unsteady breathing, but when he listened closer he could just make out fevered mumbling beneath her breath. Her eyelids fluttered but never opened.
“Nightmares,” his mum explained sadly. “Bad ones by the sound of them. But the fact that she can string together thoughts and react to them physically is a good sign. The surgeon expects her to wake up soon. Though perhaps she’d be better to sleep through this battle. Pushing herself so soon after waking up won’t do her any good.”
His parents left to help prepare for the coming battle. Bucc sat alone for a while without knowing what he was supposed to be doing. He had only known her for a week longer than everyone else, and most of that time they had been forced together by circumstances beyond their control. Who was to say that Bucc would be someone she wanted to see?
“Milla?” he asked tentatively. The word sounded too loud in the quiet of the room. She still mumbled quietly to herself. Bucc thought about what might get her to wake up. “The Ashenna are about to attack us. If you want your chance to fight them then you’d better get up.” She stirred slightly at the name but didn’t wake.
“I found my Pa, and Jesse and Adward. Jesse’s a captain now. I hurt her badly back on The Seal but somehow she’s grown stronger from it. I’m part of her crew now. Neri still wants us to go back to The Shores of the Nexus, but we have a battle to win first. I’m not sure why, but she insists that you’re there when we go. That means you’ve got to pull through and keep yourself alive, okay?”
Milla didn’t move, but Neri did. His familiar wriggled out from his shirt and rolled over to the door where she nudged it repeatedly. Bucc opened it and Neri slipped out of the room. He frowned then sat back down. He could tell from their link that she didn’t want him to follow her.
A few minutes passed until Bucc sensed that Neri was returning. She rolled back into the room followed by a stream of floating blanks that filled the corridor beyond. They filed into the small room until Bucc was crushed into a corner. The blanks flocked around Milla, pressing against her and making a deep rumbling noise that seemed to charge the air. A gentle glow began to come from each blank until the entire cabin was bathed in a soft green light.
They lifted Milla from the bed and into the air. She was wearing a simple nightgown that another crew member had provided for her. It hung below her like ghostly wisps. Her body shivered, then slowly her eyes opened.
For a moment she hung there without moving, taking the scene in with vacant, sleepy eyes. Then they focussed in and the look of peace on her face twisted into a scowl. She jerked herself to the side and landed on the ground where she staggered and fell. Bucc pushed his way towards her but she stood up again before he could reach her. She swayed perilously and blinked dizzily.
“Where am I? What’s happening?”
“You’re safe. We escaped Cantruug but you were hurt. We’re aboard a friendly ship. I’d say everything’s okay, but we’re literally about to be attacked by an Ashenna fleet.”
“Good. Point me towards them.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“I’ll find them myself then,” she snapped. She tried to scatter the blanks from her path and walked towards the door. She missed it and walked into the wall.
“The blanks woke you up but I get the feeling you aren’t fully recovered yet. How many times do I have to tell you that you need to eat to get your strength back up?”
Milla made a low growling noise. Even she must have known that she was in no condition to fight.
“Fine. Bring me food.” She paused then tugged at the nightgown. “Where’s my dress?” A trace of distress lined her voice.
“It was ripped and burned during the escape. More than it already was. It barely stayed on you.”
“Where is it?” she asked again. Thinly veiled anger reflected in her face and words.
Bucc hoped that his parents had had the foresight to leave the dress in the room. He checked the chest and breathed a sigh of relief. Inside was a bundle of white material. He picked it up and offered it to her.
“Like I said, it was badly damaged. The others wanted to throw it away and get you some new clothes but I had a feeling this dress was really important to you. My pa has a bit of skill as a tailor so I got him to repair it for you. The only material similar enough that we had was my Awakening shroud. I hope you don’t mind having my shirt sewn into it.”
Milla took it gingerly and carefully unfolded it. Bucc’s father had done a good job with it. It was almost impossible to see where the rips had been patched with the Awakening shroud. There were no signs of the burn damage and all of the dirt and blood had been meticulously washed out. Bucc had never seen the dress in its original state, but it looked like he had always imagined it should have.
“You gave up your shroud for this?” Milla asked in a shaking voice. “Those clothes are sacred. They are there to be used for the next generation.”
Bucc shrugged awkwardly. “That’s in the future. It might not even happen. Until then, none of it’s real I guess. What is real is what’s in front of me. I could save those clothes for a future that might not happen, or I could use them for a present that I know will impact someone’s life. And, well, you probably won’t have a shroud of your own since your village was destroyed, right? So I wanted to show you people still care.”
Silent tears rolled down Milla’s face. She hugged the dress tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. She smiled gleefully even as the tears continued to fall. Without warning she started to slip off the gown to change into the repaired dress. Bucc span around to face the wall, blushing furiously.
“It looks just like it did on the day my dad gave it to me,” Milla said.
Bucc risked looking around and saw that she was now in the dress. He sighed and turned back to her.
“I’m glad you like it. We’re about to go into another battle though. Don’t you want some other clothes to wear to keep the dress safe?”
“No.” The word was spoken with a firm determination. “I wore this dress on the day the Ashenna attacked my village. The ash of my home and the blood of my family became part of this fabric. I’ll keep wearing it until Pyrefist is dead. Now let’s go. I don’t want to miss out when the fighting starts.”
Milla made it through the door this time, though her steps were still unsteady. A crowd had gathered in the corridor outside that had followed the sudden appearance of the blanks. They parted without a word as Milla passed them. The blanks swirled around her. Bucc followed quickly in her wake.
Without slowing she made her way up to the deck and scanned the crowd, directing her steps straight towards Bucc’s mum. When she got there she stopped and pointed to Bucc’s father as the blanks spread out and floated above her.
“Are you Bucc’s dad?”
“Yes, last time I checked. That’s me.”
She considered him for a moment then offered him a curtsey. “Thank you for caring for my dress. I am in your debt.”
His dad looked taken aback by the statement. No doubt that all of the gossip involving Milla had mentioned her cold attitude and hostile actions. He held his hands up and quickly shook his head with a nervous laugh.
“There’s no need for that. It was Bucc that insisted I fix it up for you. I’m just glad it all seems to fit nicely. Call it a reward for getting my wife and son back to me safe. No debt necessary.”
“Understood,” she said with a nod. “Now, please point me in the direction of the enemy.”
Bucc grabbed her arm. “We aren’t marching straight towards a fleet of eighty five ships. That’s crazy even for you. Listen, just come with me and then if we see an opening you can go wild, okay?”
Milla considered this. Her fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly. Finally she gave a frustrated sigh and stopped pulling against Bucc’s grip.
“Fine. I’ll do it your way until I see a better path. It isn’t Pyrefist out there so I can afford to wait.”
Captain Ackeridge hobbled over to them, her familiar’s usually sleepy eyes locked on Milla with a quiet intensity. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to join my deserting deckhand? If the stories about you are true then I’m reluctant to release you from my service. But then, you were unconscious when they brought you aboard so you can hardly be considered as a binding crew member. So you both better go quickly. It looks like the Ashenna are moving into position.”
“Bucc tells me they have eighty five ships.”
“Yes. They don’t want us to hold this position.”
“Don’t be fooled by their numbers and logical way of thinking. The Ashenna will use any advantage they can get. Don’t underestimate them.”
“Captain Pyrefist isn’t leading them. Without its head, the Ashenna empire lacks a certain bite.”
“I could kill everybody aboard this ship here and now. If the daughter of Pyrefist was here she would make me look like a newborn. Pyrefist has trained her from birth to be his successor. She will wipe out this fleet without mercy.”
A near feral grin spread across the captain’s face. “Then I welcome the challenge.”
Bucc said a heartfelt goodbye to his parents as a boat was prepared to take them back to The Phoenix.
“I’ll see you both later. That’s a promise.”
A few minutes later they arrived on The Phoenix and Milla was introduced to the Tooth Fairies. They were more interested in the tide of blanks that accompanied her and now floated idly around the deck. Jesse, her mask in place, shook Milla’s hand firmly and officially invited her to the crew. Milla shrugged then agreed.
“You seem like a different person. This year I’ve lost has gifted you with confidence. Do you have enough to command a ship against near unwinnable odds?”
“I feel like I was born to do this. You did all the fighting last time. Now it’s my turn to show you what I can do.” Jesse answered.
Bucc couldn’t be sure, but he had a pretty good guess that she was smiling beneath the mask. She was looking forward to the battle even in the face of death. It seemed to him that everyone had lost their minds. He turned to Adward.
“Please tell me that you aren’t looking forward to this battle too?”
“Me? By His Noodles, no! There’s a lot of the world to explore yet before I take on the afterlife. But I can’t let everyone else go and get themselves killed, can I? You’re going to need my brains to get through this.”
“Then you’d better put those brains to use now. It’s time,” Milla announced gravely.
Bucc looked out towards where the Ashenna fleet had set up. They were on the move. It looked like it really was time. He took a deep breath and looked to Jesse.
“What are your orders, Captain?”
Jesse drew one of her many pistols and pointed it at the oncoming fleet. “All hands to battle stations. Prepare yourself for the fight of your lives!”