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Burial at sea

Chapter Text

 

 

 

He that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it.

John Locke

 

The starlit sky rises above Nassau like an enormous black dome that provides cover for the affairs of its inhabitants. Not as many illicit ones as before the new Governor, probably, but the town still gives off a sinful, naughty impression, with drunken shouts and shanties sung by men who obviously lack a singing voice, or musical hearing, or maybe both. In the distance, palm trees sway at the seaside, dark, frayed shadows against the black, shimmering mass of the ocean.

Seated at her desk, Max tallies the transactions they have made this quarter, and Eme is recounting news from the Old World to the Governor’s wife. Madi is only listening half-heartedly, standing on the balcony looking out onto the street, more interested in any clue that might explain what exactly turned so many people she knew so mad about Nassau, since this starlit landscape alone doesn’t seem to suffice. Nights are charming on all islands in the West Indies, maybe even more so on the Maroon Island, if anyone asked her, which they didn’t. Max herself is also enamored by Nassau, after all.

“And the kingdom of Sweden now has a Queen,” Eme says. “Ulrika, I think, is her name. Ulrika Eleanor, or maybe Eleanora. She is the daughter to the King that was, and now has become Queen in her own right.”

Madi finds both her name and her queenhood oddly fitting, considering whose study this used to be, and how all of the participants of this meeting are women.

“Odd that royalty has at least two given names,” remarks Idelle.

“It’s just a way to pretend that they are different from us little folk,” says Max. “You could just find another name to add to the one you have, Idelle, surely no one would mind.”

There’s silence as Idelle seems to consider renaming herself, like a ship that changes banners, and then Eme sucks in an excited breath.

“There is something else you might find of interest. I only heard about it today, on the beach. Captain Flint has been seen in Savannah, drinking himself to death.”

Madi whips around so fast her braids hit her in the face.

“Pardon me? Who--who’s been seen?”

“Captain Flint,” repeats Eme, enunciating his name with something akin to awe. “In Savannah. It is now a British mission, I think. Used to be Spanish before the tribes attacked…”

At the sound of Flint’s name, Max has also shifted her gaze to Eme. It now rests on her and seems somehow heavy, ominous.

“Flint was supposed to be dead,” she says, gravely, and Madi realises that this, after all, is the official version of events, regardless of which one of them is actually true. “What is he doing drinking in Savannah?”

“I am only repeating what I was told,” Eme replies. “This could be gossip, of course. Told sailor to sailor, who knows how many in between. But they swear it was Flint, and you have to admit that a man like that is hard to forget.”

He is, Madi agrees. Even two years later, she can easily recall his tired, freckled face, the prickly red beard. Ginger, the English pirates called it, like the spice. Fitting, if one were to think of his temper.

She feels everyone’s attention turn to her and has to make a conscious effort to maintain a neutral expression.

“That does seem like gossip,” she says. “You all know how infamous Flint was with pirates and buccaneers. No wonder they still reminisce about him, and then are convinced they see him drinking in every tavern they happen to visit. You know what a gossipy sort pirates are.”

They all nod their heads solemnly. Max shrugs, sighs and goes back to the books. The conversation finally shifts to another topic, and Madi goes back out onto the balcony. If she heard about this somewhere else, maybe it would be easier to shake off, but here, in Nassau, Flint’s presence seems to linger. He walked these streets, sat in these chairs, maybe even liked to stand out here and look out onto the humid evening. She can almost feel his shoulder pressed against hers and see the way the corners of his eyes scrunched up when he was looking at her.

“Do you have any more gossip?” Idelle asks inside of the office and Madi stiffens in anticipation.

“I’ve told you all the news I had,” says Eme pointedly. “But no, that is all that has been repeated in the kitchens and on the beach that is of any interest. Nothing else about Flint, or Vane, or Teach, or any of the others we think to be dead either.”

The last time she saw Flint was before they set out to get that cursed treasure that was supposed to change everything for the better, but somehow ended up doing the opposite. They embraced, briefly but warmly. Flint smelled of gunpowder and sweat, and she was grimy and streaked with dirt. His nose touched her ear and she kept him close with a hand on the nape of his neck. When they parted, she kissed him on the cheek, and he looked surprised, as if he’d forgotten that people had the ability to kiss cheeks if they felt so inclined.

And now, the image of Flint slumped over, drunk in a tavern somewhere - maybe Savannah, or some other little, dilapidated British mission - makes her anxious, as if their hard won peace is coming to an end. She has to grip the handrail hard to ground herself in the reality in which she has taken her father’s place as the purveyor of goods for her settlement on the Maroon Island, currently visiting with the woman who has taken Eleanor’s place.

When she’s getting ready to leave, reaching for her belt on the hook by the door, Max stops her with a gentle hand on her elbow.

“It’s gotten quite late. Wouldn’t you like to stay the night in the tavern?”

Madi usually retires to the Kumasi, their brig anchored in the bay, but it is late and the prospect of a long walk through the town and rowing back to the ship is not a pleasant one.

“Would you mind finding a place for Aloysius and Kumi to stay as well?” she asks, reminding Max that she is not without security even here, in the heart of now-civilised Nassau.

“Of course. They are welcome to stay right next to your quarters,” replies Max with a polite smile, evidently not taking that reminder personally.

Eme and Idelle retire for the evening, and Max has some other business to take care of, but she tells Madi to stay in the study and later returns with a bottle of wine. Madi is a little perplexed about that before she remembers that Anne and Jack are at sea, and Max is probably just looking for company. They talk a little about the weather - the storm season is almost upon them - and about acquaintances they have in common, or whom they recognize by name or function. It’s pleasant enough, being in the company of another woman who isn’t her mother, but she has a feeling that Max is just gearing up to ask about something more serious and personal. She hopes to all that is holy that it’s not her struggle to feed and clothe a growing community with no legitimate way of providing an income; a struggle she is finding harder and harder to hide from her partners in Nassau.

“I have noticed that the mention of Flint has unsettled you,” Max says, finally, and Madi lets out a breath of relief. “I understand that. We think ourselves free of those ghosts, and then someone walks over their graves and we’re plagued by thoughts of the past. We then try to figure out what actions could be carried out differently so that they could lead to different outcomes, but the truth is that there is no use reminiscing like this. What’s done is done.”

She stares at the window, and the night sky behind Madi’s head, the expression on her face plaintive and more than a little sad. Madi realises it’s no accident that Max has chosen her for company this evening. She means specific ghosts.

“The truth is that ever since I got to know him, I have felt a certain kinship with Captain Flint,” Madi says, watching for any signs of derision on Max’s face but finding none. Instead, Max looks her up and down, but it doesn’t feel judgmental, just inquisitive.

“I can definitely see that. Although the Captain lacked your level-headedness at times.”

“That may be so.” Madi sips from her glass. “But what he lacked in that, he compensated in courage. I’ve never met a braver man.”

Max nods, smiles lopsidedly. The rings on her fingers glimmer in candlelight.

“I have to admit that I always admired Flint for his tenacity in pursuing goals,” she says. “Sometimes, it was almost as if he had willed them into reality. I don’t share the superstitions of the sailors, but there was something… otherworldly about what happened when he really put his mind to things.”

“John once said the exact same thing--” Madi starts and breaks off, as she has just unwittingly called on the name of another one of her ghosts. Only this one is probably still alive: the last she heard, working in a tavern in Havana.

Max fixes her with one of her cool, unsettling stares and Madi has no idea how to recover from this. Is she waiting for a confession? A story of a smaller calibre to lighten the mood? Difficult to say. She settles for changing the subject, and the bottle soon runs dry.

That night, Madi lies in her bed in Max’s tavern, listening to the sounds of the night in Nassau, eyes fixed on the wooden ceiling, and suddenly thinks of the treasure on Skeleton Island. It’s still there, lying in the cold hard ground, one could say - going to waste, but it’s not, it’s gaining worth, as precious gems are wont to do. It would solve all of her problems, as money is wont to do.

The images of those riches dance before her eyes, followed by everything she could get for it: muskets, spices, vegetable and fruit saplings, cloth, shoes, books and writing appliances to educate, tools to bring the settlement into the modern age… And, finally, straight out of a Dutch painting, a bigger, better-equipped ship, ornate and sleek, that could inspire awe even in an experienced sailor like Captain Flint.

She starts at that thought. It seems alien, fed to her by someone else entirely, since she has never paid much attention to ships. If they sailed, good, if they didn’t, it was a problem to solve, like any other she dealt with on a daily basis. The Kumasi has been a continuous drain on their feeble resources and its struggling crew seems to risk more than they could ever gain, which would probably not change with a more impressive ship.

Still, Flint could probably teach them to be more effective on the account; perhaps they could even take on those great slavers bound for Carolina and Jamaica, Flint going over the side in his black cape and turban, like a wraith, Madi waiting for him at the broadside, with a pistol pointed at the slavers just in case…

This strangely vivid image of a life that was only in store for a brief moment during their war - not even named or expected, just half-imagined - brings such a powerful wave of longing over her that she feels her eyes prickle at the corners.

The floor creaks ominously just outside her room. Startled, she reaches for her gunbelt and lies tense on her side, her hand gripping the pistol, the thumb on the safety, but whatever it was, it doesn’t come back. She turns onto her back after a while and forces herself not to think of the ghosts of Nassau anymore.

In the morning, the whole idea of finding Flint and adding him to their Maroon operation seems simply ridiculous, like something out of an adventure novel. She puts on her breeches - a woman in breeches means business, and everyone here knows that - and the gunbelt, and heads downstairs to have breakfast with Max and Idelle. Afterwards, it’s a simple routine: bills of lading, inventory, stores.

“We’ve taken on more dry stores as Jameson was willing to sell at a discount,” Aloysius says, when they’re going over what is in the hold, still at the jetty. “Seemed foolish to waste a good discount.”

“One should never waste discounts,” she agrees, staring at the bill. The additional dry stores are there, taunting her. Biscuits. Salted meat. Beans. Typical, boring, seafaring food.

“Are we ready to go?” he asks after a prolonged moment of Madi staring silently at the list. She looks at him. He is black-haired and blue-eyed, like a certain other white man she knows, but Aloysius’ hair is straight, only curled delicately at the ends. He gazes at her with friendly curiosity, used to receiving reasonable requests and sensible orders from her and probably anticipating another one of those.

“Ask the captain to plot a different course,” she says instead. “We’re going north, to Savannah.”

Aloysius’ expression turns perplexed. Madi raises her eyebrow in an expression she’s learned from none other than Captain Flint himself.

“Now, fetch me Eme from the tavern, and ready the launch. We leave after I talk to her.”

She squeezes every last ounce of information out of Eme and asks her to keep it a secret as a favour for Mr Scott’s daughter. Eme squirms but agrees, and Aloysius comes soon with the carpenter’s mate that maintains Flint is in Savannah. It’s clear that he’s heard this story from someone else, and sailors are less than trustworthy when it comes to relaying information, but something about his story makes her think it’s actually a personal account. Namely, it’s quite straightforward, without too much embellishment or any outrageous elements. There’s no smoke coming out of Flint’s ears, and his red beard doesn’t drag on the ground, he’s just a drunk in a tavern.

When she steps onto the deck of the Kumasi, Captain Ato asks her for a word in his cabin. That is a polite way of telling her off, since he can’t be seen challenging her authority in the presence of the crew.

“Madi, this is unlike you,” he says, coming around the desk to where she sits, aggravated and impatient. ”You do not do things on an impulse, or because you have a gut feeling. You think things through and that is the mark of a great leader.”

“I agree,” she says, calmly. “It is unlike me. I do think things through. I consider, I reflect, I ruminate, and as a result I do not do much other than think. Let me have this. We are a week before schedule, and I still have some coin to spend, so if nothing else, we can take a look at the trade offering of Savannah, gather news - maybe even some leads - and go home.”

She has him at ‘some leads’; Captain Ato is obsessed with them and fiercely believes that his success on the account depends solely on the quality of information they gather. He glares at her, scowls, and rubs his meaty hands together, as if deliberating, but she knows he’s taken the bait already.

“I’ll plot the course for Savannah,” he says, eventually, and with a heavy sigh to show his disapproval. “On the condition that we are homebound before the start of the hurricane season.”

“Of course, Captain,” she replies and, at that moment, truly believes it.

It’s exhilarating, at first, to be back on the track of the adventure she was robbed off by John Silver, and a little scary, as always when faced with the unknown. There are innumerable ways this could go, a thousand uncertain outcomes, and she is ready to take all of them on like a spray of seawater on the deck. She tries to conjure an image the reunion and fails, because deep down she knows it is not going to be one of the happy ones. If anything Silver’s told her is true, Flint has been beaten into submission by the overwhelming odds and the betrayal of the one closest to him, stripped of the respect and power he garnered as a pirate captain. Unmade, turned into another person entirely.

If all of it was true, he was supposed to be reunited with his lost love, the English lord. Madi is, however, no stranger to philosophy, and she knows that in order to find the most reasonable option, one must discard all the doubtful ones. There is probably no English lord spirited away to a mysterious plantation for outcasts from civilisation. There is just a man trying to drink himself to death, one she should have recovered a long time ago.

They sail to Savannah under the punishing glare of the sun. It only rains one day, and the crew puts out pails and barrels to catch the water, just in case. Captain Ato urges her to hide in her cabin, but she stays on deck. The rain is warm, and the sky and the ocean seem to converge, surrounding them with an all-encompassing greyness. Once more, Madi is beset by an overwhelming longing, but this time there’s a strong undercurrent of anger in it. This whole expedition could be a fool’s errand, but at least she is trying to undo what John Silver did to her and Flint those two years ago.

Mother, of course, is certain that Flint is dead, but Mother also considers Silver the root of all evil and the devil incarnate. Madi has spent countless hours on the topic of Silver’s capacity for murder, specifically for murdering Captain Flint, and has come to the conclusion that he would neither be able to kill Flint nor her, whatever the circumstances.

It’s with that thought that she jumps out of the launch in Savannah, and heads straight for the tavern, Aloysius and Kumi at her back. They barge inside and look around. Flint isn’t there, or anywhere in the vicinity.

Madi stands back while Aloysius asks around about a red-haired man skilled in sailing and navigation, possibly with a propensity for drinking.

“Aye, there was a fella,” says one of the sailors. “Haven’t seen him in months. Always in a rotten mood, that one.”

“Well, where has he gone? What is he doing?” presses Aloysius.

The man fixes him with a tired and a little disdainful stare.

“Sailed away with one of the crews, would be my guess. For the colonies mayhaps?”

“Maybe another tavern?” suggests Aloysius once they run out of patrons to question. If they even recall someone like Flint, they all say the same thing: he must have left, no one’s seen him around. But there is no other tavern: Savannah is small, not even a colony, barely an outpost for the local wealthy plantation owners and merchants to exchange goods at.

Reminiscent of what she’s told Ato, she half-heartedly browses the wares in the market, while Aloysius and Kumi try to befriend locals to gather leads. She’s not exactly surprised, or even disappointed, it’s something else. Maybe it’s anger. She’s gotten so good at keeping a lid on everything that it’s difficult to discern what it really is that makes her hand shake when she hands the money over to the merchant.

The journey back to the Kumasi is a silent one. Aloysius rows morosely while Kumi keeps his eyes on the horizon.

“We could try in St Augustine,” he says, all of a sudden. Madi is always a little startled at the sound of his deep, raspy voice. “It is the biggest town this side of the colonies. It might yield something.”

Madi once again strong-arms Ato into agreeing to a change in their course. St Augustine, fortunately, lies on their route back to Maroon Island, and is an actual town, a harbor, a place worth visiting. Madi tries not to be too excited at the prospect; she’d rather avoid repeating the experience of Savannah, if only to not feel that dark resentment that it’s stirred within her again.

Florida is a lush, green land spread across the horizon. St Augustine blinks its hundreds of lights at dusk, and some of the crew look spellbound. They have never seen settlements this big or imposing, maybe save for Nassau.

They get on a launch and row to the harbour. Madi is strangely calm, as if she’s already accepted a negative outcome of this attempt. Ato and Mother are going to be displeased with her, and they are going to return home a little later than they’ve planned, but otherwise nothing is going to be affected by the futility of this. Other than her curiosity, of course: that’s going to be sated.

She walks into the first tavern she sees, Aloysius on her right, Kumi trailing slightly behind. Some of the patrons turn to look at a black woman dressed in trousers and sporting a gunbelt, but these are the colonies, and they’ve all seen stranger things than that. Madi looks around, her eyes slowly getting used to the flickering, weak light inside.

Flint is there, at the bar, sipping from a cup. He doesn’t notice her at first, but then turns his head and narrows his eyes, struggling to recognise the newcomers, and his whole face undergoes a powerful transformation. If she was not certain at the first moment, well. She is now.