“This place really gives me the chills,” Manu says when they slowly and cautiously enter the cove where the dead ships are moored.
“Just as creepy as I remember,” Aloysius adds, leaning with his right elbow on the rail, his left arm pressed to his chest in a makeshift sling. “And quite accurately named Skeleton Island if you think of how many actually met their end here.”
Kumi sees Manu cast a glance at Flint, who is manning the helm, and remembers that nearly whole Flint’s crew went down here. They are now passing the burnt-out wreck of a majestic brigantine that must have been The Walrus and like seemingly everything that ever goes through Flint’s head, it shows on his face: it’s pale and twisted with sorrow.
Kumi once considered joining his crew--since they apparently treated dark-skinned folks decently--but it did not come to pass, for a reason he does not recall specifically now, but it’s only thanks to it that he is not currently lying in seaweed, bobbing gently underwater with the rest of Flint’s skeleton crew. He makes a gesture to thank the ancestors for that stroke of luck, and Aloysius notices that and copies it reflexively.
John Silver is at the rail too, but at a distance from them, and with his face turned deliberately away from the observers. Kumi is unsettled at their grief; it feels palpable and ominous against the foggy, grim backdrop of the island.
They cast anchor further in the cove, away from the wrecks and their morbid sunken cargo. No one seems very eager to make land and Flint wrestles with the ropes of the skiff by himself, mumbling curses, until Kumi comes to help.
“How big is that cache again?” Amma flings her sword belt over her shoulder. No one questions it even though they should be the only people on the island.
“It’s a fairly big chest,” Silver says, looking shifty. “Two men can carry it, as I clearly recall.”
Flint shoots him a dirty look.
“I buried it, I can get it out,” he says.
Amma looks pointedly at the wound on his shoulder, but Kumi recognizes the vein of ultimate self-reliance and stubborness in Flint’s expression. His father used to be like that; he’d chop wood with an arrow lodged in his thigh.
Eventually, it’s decided that Manu, Aloysius and the deckhands will stay with the ship, and the rest will hike to find and uncover the cache, which according to Flint should take more or less until sunset.
When they go get ready, Aloysius catches Kumi under the deck.
“Be careful, darling,” he says, touching Kumi’s cheek with his good hand. His hair is curling in the humidity. “Will you?”
“He promised,” Kumi says. He recalls his last conversation with Flint vividly. No funny business, Captain Flint.
“I know he did, and I want to trust in that too, but still. This is not a good place, so you’ll do right to take care of yourself.”
Kumi nods and leans down to kiss him. He’s sworn to protect the princess and to cherish his matelote, and the rest is not of much concern to him.
They crowd into their slightly burnt skiff and recall the recent rescue operation to lighten the mood. They were unlucky enough to encounter the merchant ship, La Condesa, before their target, but eventually it worked out in their favour: Aloysius set the skiff on fire in order to draw the merchant captain’s attention and once they boarded it all it took was a heated discussion to persuade the crew to stand aside for their boarding of La Serendipia. If not for the blow to Aloysius’ right shoulder, they would have emerged from it almost entirely unscathed.
The air is heavy with humidity, and with the chill in the air it has fog rolling in from the water. They climb up the embankment, which puts them over the cloud, giving the ridge the appearance of a little island in a bigger one: a misty atoll. The terrain is rough and Silver struggles on his crutch. Madi lags behind to give him a hand, but he politely declines her help.
Kumi slows down to let him catch up. Silver audibly grits his teeth.
“You must think this is ridiculous,” he says after a short while, to which Kumi just shrugs. “This whole spectacle. Betrayals, lies, blood spilt… All because of that cache in the ground. Just a fraction of Spain’s riches.”
Kumi doesn’t comment. John Silver plows onward, his hair wet from sweat and the fog, black and glistening in the muted light.
“It’s more than that, you know,” he adds despite Kumi’s steady silence. “So many people sacrificed so much. Went through so much cruelty, so much strife for it… Because there was hope for a better world in it, too. The means to sustain a whole community. Freedom from the yoke--”
He stops and looks Kumi straight in the eye, as if he’s trying to convey the enormity of that to Kumi more directly than with words. Kumi doesn’t say anything; he just looks back into these blue, strangely translucent eyes. This drive to make the world better is a beautiful sentiment and a noble motivation, but Kumi doubts that there is an amount of money in existence that will stop slavers taking boys from their forests, their gardens and their fields, and dragging them onto their ships and into a terrible unknown.
Silver finally drops his gaze and they continue along the ridge swamped in dense greenery. The jungle is alive with the sound of animals and insects, so the silence that falls once Flint disappears from view is all the more striking.
They all stop in their tracks. Amma’s hand goes immediately to the hilt of her sabre and Madi runs up to the front.
Flint’s head suddenly sticks out from a bush.
“It’s down here,” Flint rasps. “Let’s light a lantern, it’s quite dark.”
Madi breathes an audible sigh of relief and Kumi’s clenched fist relaxes. They all crowd around the entrance to the cave hidden in the shrubbery. It’s quite difficult to spot, its mouth a dark maw between the leaves.
Amma twitches, watchful as ever.
“Where’s Mr Silver? He was right behind us.”
Kumi turns. He must have lost Silver in the last minute or so, which means he can’t be far. He backtracks to the place where they had their conversation and, sure enough, Silver is sitting on a fallen tree trunk, his head in his hands.
Kumi stops at the edge of the clearing, Amma right beside him. Madi walks right past them, Flint at her heels.
“John?” She leans over him, hands on her hips. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry.” He looks up and Kumi can’t recall when he last saw a man in such intense existential despair. “I’m sorry this is who I am, and I can’t change that no matter how I try.”
Madi sits down next to him on the log and Flint hovers before them awkwardly. Kumi can only see his back and the sloping line of his shoulders and he thinks: fish out of water. Men like Flint shoot their problems, not console them.
“Well, who says that you should?” Flint rumbles and it’s so close and personal Kumi turns away. Amma does too and they stand there like two uncomfortable sentinels, ignoring the murmur of the conversation behind them. The humidity has rivulets of sweat flow down Kumi’s back and chest and he heaves a sigh.
“This whole trip has been quite a ride,” Amma says. There’s something wistful in her voice. Kumi thinks about home: the shadows of palm trees, Aloysius’s strangely pale skin. There are things that make it worth it.
A few minutes later Flint steps between them, his face flushed and determined. He swallows with nervous energy.
They go into the cavern and dig up the treasure while John Silver holds the lantern overhead. Kumi does feel a little surprised that the cache is in the ground exactly where they were supposed to find it and expects it to be empty until the last moment, but it’s not. It’s full of gold and jewels that reflect the light like anything he’s ever seen in his life, and for a short moment he understands the madness that drives people to seek treasure; then it passes like a warm shower of rain in spring.
Max begins her day with looking out onto her town from the balcony.
Anne is usually asleep when she wakes. Max leaves her in bed--her face so peaceful in sleep--and puts on a robe. It’s silk, just the side of sheer, rather inappropriate for stepping out, but she needs to take a look to make sure her town is there. A tsunami hasn’t come in the night and washed it away. A hostile navy hasn’t moored in her harbour and wreaked havoc on the beach. A trigger-happy maniac isn’t inciting the hard-working people to rebel against the English yoke. And every day she finds Nassau there, as smelly and vibrant as ever.
Then, Eme brings her breakfast and helps her dress, and they go through the most urgent issues of the day on the way to the market. While there, she takes a look at all the stalls. Orders some fine cloth from Mr Williams. Gets some fresh fruit from Mrs Jennings. Checks in on the price of sugarcane. The market street is the heart of Nassau, the trade--her blood, and Max makes sure it’s pumping.
“Oh, and the Kumasi has arrived this morning,” Eme adds once they’re done with the agenda. “She was the first ship in, must have come in the night.”
“The Kumasi”, Max repeats, glad at the thought of seeing Madi again. “Are they looking to trade?”
“They have a load of cloth and spices. And coin to spare, too.”
“I have not seen them in a while,” she muses. She has a feeling there was something about Madi she was supposed to remember and it’s right there, at the tip of her tongue, but then she runs into Jack.
“Good morning, mademoiselle.” He bows and almost sweeps the street with his ridiculous hat. “May I accompany you this morning?”
“You may, unless you’re going to attempt to barter compliments for money to fund another one of your harebrained endeavours,” she chides him, but they fall into step all the same.
He opens his mouth to protest but then deflates and reconsiders.
“I--I feel like I am being unfairly judged here.”
“I told you you have to earn your keep, didn’t I?”
They push through the morning crowd, dodging porters and merchants. Max turns her head to glance at jewellery and when she looks back ahead, Madi steps out from behind a tall Indian sailor.
“Max. It is so good to see you.”
They exchange a quick embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Madi smells like fragrant oils, which is a familiar smell, reminiscent of childhood, Max’s mother, her cousins.
“I can see business is booming,” Madi says with a smile after exchanging pleasantries with Jack and Eme. She’s dressed in a finely embroidered blouse and a pair of dark, loose-fitted trousers, but there’s no pistol at her belt, just a heavy purse. “I was hoping we could sit down for a transaction or two.”
“Of course,” Max replies, intending to suggest a meeting, maybe even accompanied by a bottle of wine, but something gnaws at her in that relentless way that warned of her trouble many, many times before. Madi is always accompanied by the two men sworn to guard her and while there’s no one at her back now, Max can see someone dark-haired at the nearest stall. His hair is not straight though, like Aloysius Fairweather’s, but curly, and when the man turns to his companion, Max immediately recognizes John Silver’s perky profile.
In the background, Jack is awkwardly making conversation with Madi, but Max just stares, increasingly upset at the mere sight of John in her town. His hair is braided and adorned with beads, giving him the appearance of a Maroon or a Native, and he seems to have discarded the crutch in favour of a new wooden leg. All the girls at the brothel used to rave about how handsome he is, but Max always thought him rathe cute and boyish, and considered his attempts to appear older and more serious with the unkempt beard ridiculous. Now, he looks his age, groomed, tanned golden by the sun and uninhibited in the way he is gesturing and throwing his head back to laugh.
As Max watches, Silver realizes Madi is not beside him and looks around to find her. His gaze finally, inevitably lands on Max and Jack, and his cheerful expression slides into something wary and serious. He sways a little on his false leg upon turning and leans onto the shoulder of his companion for support.
They walk over, which is a short distance, definitely not sufficient for Max to regain her composure, especially that she is starting to recognize the other man as well. It’s not immediate, like with Silver, but gradual: the arrogant, swaying swagger, the ginger beard peeking out from under the brim of his hat, the penchant for tightly fitted breeches--here, now, on a November morning in the middle of Nassau John Silver is leaning on no-one else than the infamous Captain Flint.
Flint politely takes his hat off and gives a curt nod to Max, and she whips around to face Jack, who’s staring at Flint in unabashed horror.
“You told me he was dead!”
“As good as dead,” Jack supplies, apparently aware that it’s not going to suffice. Panicked, he turns to Silver, who is regarding all of them with a little smile. “You were not supposed to be back here, even less with Flint of all people!”
Silver shrugs with fake innocence.
“Just James,” Flint interjects calmly, putting his hat back on. “If you mind. I am trying to keep a low profile on New Providence.”
Jack gives a choked chortle at that. Flint looks at him with the unmistakable air of a threat, which clashes with the avuncular appearance he adopted: a farmer’s wide-brimmed hat, white shirt open on the chest, longer hair shot through with grey.
It’s not having the desired effect on Max.
“I do not know why you are back here,” she says, her voice level by utmost effort, “but I hope it is not to wreak havoc. I have worked too hard for this town to be what it is for you to just come back and put it on fire.”
Flint scoffs and prepares for a retort, but Madi places a hand on his forearm, which effectively silences him.
“We are only visiting,” she says with a tight, apologetic smile.
“Visiting?” Jack repeats, reaching an unsettlingly high pitch. “Visiting from where?”
“From the Maroon Island,” Madi replies. “John and James are staying with me.”
There is a beat as they all digest that information. Max looks more closely at John Silver and notices a reddened bite mark on his neck, just above the collar of his shirt. That smug smile is back on his face, seemingly drawing from a source deeper than just the shock effect, and she realises at once that they must have recovered the cache. Flint was the only one who knew its location. Madi had the resources to reach the island. Silver has always had that inexplicable hold on both of them.
It’s so obvious once she understands it, and she feels her mind bend under the force of that discovery, make room for it, and return to normal.
“So,” Flint, no, James clears his throat. “I wanted to see what all the racket was about. About Nassau. It’s a joy to see it thriving so.”
Max bristles a little but Flint rises his head to show her the genuine expression on his face. That’s favorable; she’d hate to be at odds with him again.
“How long are you staying?” Jack asks, probably trying to calculate his chances for being assaulted by Flint, however affable he seems to be.
“A few days,” Silver answers, squinting in the sun. “Just to trade and restock. Have a drink in the tavern. See if I need to send anyone the black spot. You know.”
Max shakes her head, looking at three of them. They give off a strong feeling of comfortable company, unity and familiarity, and it makes her miss Anne’s presence despite seeing her no more than an hour ago.
There’s no use denying that the balance of power has shifted and all that remains is to see how and whether she can somehow use it to her--and Anne’s, and Jack’s--advantage. Plus, she is really attached to the idea of having dinner with Madi.
“We spoke earlier of sitting down together, and I would like to extend that invitation to all of you,” she says, to Jack’s silent but fierce disapproval. “Dinner is on me tonight. I will send someone for you. But please, be discreet.”
And just like that, with a swish of her skirts Max moves away. She barely registers the dumbfounded looks on their faces, but the astounded laughter reaches her even across the crowd. All around her, Nassau’s pulse beats as strong as ever.