“You were cursed by him,” Tom Morgan says.
Silver’s hand freezes, holding a tankard halfway between the table and his lips. He draws his eyes from his drink to his old friend, slowly and deliberately dangerous.
“What did you say?” he says, politely.
The men have an unspoken agreement – never mention the days of the Walrus to him, and never, ever, mention Flint. Tom Morgan looks at him heavily, from behind old, wise eyes. Silver hates him for that; he still acts sometimes as a parent, rather than a soldier.
“For everything that happened, for everything you did… you turned into him, Silver. The same pain and anger drives you, now.”
Silver is not sure when Tom began to think that addressing him like this was allowed or accepted. He has been too easy on the men; he will have to remedy that. The memory burns him as it comes, the pain as fresh as the day it was branded onto every inch of his new skin.
And casting about in the dark for some proof that you mattered and finding none, you'll know that you gave it away in this moment, on this island.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Silver lies, smiling at him. Tom still values his life, though, and he doesn’t bring it up again.
He sends the fruit of his madness to Bristol, as though somehow enough money will make her take him back. She replies with letters on the state of his business and properties, brief and cordial.
It has been many years, but Silver will not stop trying. It is not because he believes he deserves to be loved; it is because Madi is the only person he has left who knows what he truly is.
A monster, a myth, a maniac. A man in love, who traded dreams for safety and respect for resentment.
The legends say that Long John Silver trapped a demon in the south, and that is why he never steps foot upon the shore there. The legends say he fell in love with a woman upon the Savannah River, and his love married another. He doesn’t discourage the fables, simply cracks a wicked grin and jests that the demon had huge breasts. He never thinks of going inland, and searching out the past. After all, he had killed it with his own hands – whoever he found in Savannah wouldn’t be the man he called Captain.
They have been reading every night for a month, and James is glad that the book is finally at its end.
“‘Descended from the gods! Ulysses, cease;
Offend not Jove: obey, and give the peace.’
So Pallas spoke: the mandate from above
The king obey'd. The virgin-seed of Jove,
In Mentor's form, confirm'd the full accord,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.”
He closes the book, and sighs. It is a new book, sent recently from England. It is still fresh with the smell of leather and unworn pages. He allows himself a moment to dwell on the feeling on the cover beneath his fingers.
“What happened to Nausicaa?” the child asks.
James startles. “What?”
“What happened to Nausicaa?” the girl asks again. She is young enough to be impertinent, and he finds himself absurdly fond of her.
“I don’t know,” James replies. “It doesn’t say.”
“Hmm,” the girl says. “She was my favourite character.”
James smiles, and puts the book on the bedside table. He stands to leave, absentmindedly adjusting the quilt so that it covers the girl’s chest.
“You can write your own ending to her story, then,” he says. “Perhaps she went off on her own great adventures. Perhaps she married a king.”
“Oh, no,” the child says confidently. “She never married. She loved Ulysses too much for that – don’t you think, Mr. Argent?”
The question haunts him for weeks, echoing in his skull and staining distant memories with new colour. At night, when he tries to sleep, he is visited by a smiling ghost who he fears and longs for in equal measure. The floorboards creak, as though the past is leaning upon them.
Finally, he breaks. He cannot stand the apparitions of long-lost words any longer. He takes his leave of the city, sparing only a moment to farewell the family who had come to treat them as one of their own.
“We always knew you’d leave, of course,” says the mother. “You saved us. An angel sent from God. We knew He would call you back one day.”
“I am no angel,” James says firmly, shaking his head.
The mother smiles at him with the dauntlessness of the faithful.
He returns to Skeleton Island. He tries to find the place in the forest where he betrayed Flint, but the path is too changed now, overgrown with years. It seems cruel, that there is no signpost to mark where the world changed forever. No grave to mark the place he killed the best man he had ever known.
He takes a part of the treasure. He never spends a coin. Eventually it is stolen from him by a common thief, and then, and only then, does he weep.
John Silver wakes up one day and realises that the age of pirates has ended. Vane and Blackbeard gave their lives, in futility, for a cause he had destroyed. Rackham is dead, hung years ago in Port Royal. Anne and Max vanished, never to be seen or heard of again. It surprises him – it shocks him – but Woodes Rogers’ death hits him hardest of all. The reborn hero of England died in his second term of office. They say he expired from the exhaustion of ruling a bureaucracy.
Silver wants to laugh, but instead he is overcome with grief. Not for the governor, but for the enemy he represented. Here was a man who they could fight, who they could despise, who had taken Nassau back from them. While he lived, there was some chance for revenge, however slight.
Now there is nothing but emptiness, and the machinations of an Empire that rolls ever on.
Even with Rogers dead, neither of them is stupid enough to return to Nassau. But the island calls, across the land and sea.
Vestis virum facit, as they say. Nobody left alive on the island could recognise the man in the long, cream coat as Captain Flint. His greying hair has grown again, tamed into a ponytail, and his beard and moustache are neatly trimmed. Nor would any recognise the darker man with the echoes of stubble and short, cropped hair. His wooden leg is concealed behind his long pant legs and boots, and he keeps his eyes downcast. Long John Silver has been unceremoniously buried at sea; one more carcass dumped over the side of a ship.
The two men skulk through the countryside of the island they know like the back of their hand. They steal food where they can, and shelter in caves and hollows that are filled with memories from over a decade past.
It’s not clear what they are searching for, until they find it.
There is a new house on the Barlow Estate, a grand mansion built from the ashes of a humble home. James is not sure what he expected – it is one thing to know that your life has been forgotten, and the world has moved on. It is another thing entirely to see it in the flesh. It should not have been this easy to erase their history.
He turns, and walks.
As the day turns to night, he goes to the abandoned farmhouse at the centre of New Providence Island. Here at last is something that has not yet been touched – something that came before them, and has existed after them. James knows it is a fool’s mistake to camp where he might be so easily discovered, but he is tired, and alone. Perhaps, he thinks, it was merely a way of remembering the past before he died. If the regulars come for him, he might not even put up a fight.
The sky blazes red on the horizon, and James watches the sun set beyond the distant hills. The world is silent but for the gentle breeze rustling the grasses, and the distant call of crickets. Here, he could be the only man left alive in the world.
He finds himself comforted suddenly by the knowledge that this land will be here to see England’s demise. The landscape may change, of course. Nations will fight over it, and raze the trees and grasses, and build over the top of it all. But then nature will reclaim it, just as the sea reclaimed Flint.
Even if their enemy did not die through his war, he is not sorry that he spent his life fighting. One day, others will take up the mantle. They proved that it was possible to resist. They were not the first enemies of civilisation, and they will not be the last.
There is a sound close by, and James flinches. He rises onto the balls of his feet, crouching and peering out of a would-be window in the crumbling wall. A shadowy figure is limping towards the hut on a crutch, his movements a simple rhythm that thumps across the ground.
To James, it sounds like a heartbeat.
He walks out of the house, and looks down the valley towards John Silver. When Silver notices him, he stops dead. Both hearts falter, waiting.
James thinks of the woman with the dauntless smile.
“You said once,” James says, his voice carrying across the grasses. “You said that there was no storyteller, no grace or coherence or sense in events. That the only meaning there was to all this was that the world was full of unending horrors, and that there was no purpose to divine from it all.”
Silver is silent. A man he killed has just risen from the dead in front of him. It is no wonder he looks as though he has seen a ghost.
“For some years afterwards, I agreed with you,” James continues. “And yet I find I no longer can.”
He walks to Silver, crossing the grass sea between them.
“Flint,” Silver whispers. “Why are you here?” His eyes dart to the house behind James’ shoulder, as though expecting another man to walk out behind him.
James shakes his head.
Silver’s face falls. “I’m sorry,” he breathes, and his face tremors with some barely withheld feeling. “God. I’m so fucking sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” James says slowly, an echo of Silver’s own words from another time. And now Silver is crying, as though Thomas Hamilton was once his own lover.
James Flint would tear him apart for what he did to their war. But James Flint was murdered by Long John Silver.
“Why are you here?” Silver asks again.
“Why are you?” James answers, and he takes another step closer to Silver, until they are close enough to embrace. He begins to lift a hand up to stoke the tear away from Silver’s cheek, and then falters.
James McGraw would never love anyone like he loved Thomas Hamilton. But James McGraw died of a broken heart in Savannah.
Silver huffs out a laugh, and his eyes swim with endless grief. “I don’t fucking know. There’s nothing left for me. I tried to live with what I did, but when I left you on Skeleton Island – it wasn’t just James Flint that died that day.”
James doesn’t speak, watching the man who had known him more deeply than even Thomas. He listens as John Silver explains his past to him, so that at last James might know him as well.
Silver looks to the horizon, and sighs. His lips twitch with contempt and self-loathing. “I settled down with a wife who could not trust me, and found it wanting. I became a respected property-owner, and found it wanting. I haunted the seas, and plundered, and killed. I became every inch the monster they call Long John Silver, and still I found it wanting. And so at the end of it all, I came back here,” Silver continues, shaking his head. “As it seems I had run out of ways to punish myself, save to drive the dagger home by visiting this fucking place once more.”
He turns back to look at James. The last of the sunlight is disappearing behind the horizon, and John Silver’s face is half light, and half shadow.
“I will not ask you for forgiveness,” John says, “because I do not regret it. I will never regret it. I saved you, and Madi, and countless others. Saving your lives, so that you both outlived them all.”
“You knew,” James says suddenly. “You knew what would happen, and you did it anyway. Why? How could you do it, knowing she would not accept your betrayal any more than I did?”
John Silver smiles, as though proud that his partner has finally caught up.
“Because I am, and have always been, entirely selfish. And your safety was something I wanted more than I wanted my own.”
They stand in silence, and the grass blows gently all around them. In the distance, the last of the sun’s glow flickers and dies, and the world begins to turn to darkness once more.
“I never understood it,” James says suddenly. “I never understood why Charles Vane kept going back to Eleanor, even though she betrayed him over and over and over again. Even though it was clear Eleanor did not love him back in the same way, even though Eleanor kept using him as a means to an end.”
He speaks the names on this hallowed land, and the ghosts of the past rise up to join them. James cannot stop himself.
“Jack and Anne, and Max, and Billy, and Teach,” he says, and he cannot stop. “Gates, and Mr. Scott, and Miranda.”
They stand around them both, spirits called back from the Underworld to watch over their communion. Finally Flint, too, rises from the dead.
“This damn thing,” Flint says, and his voice breaks. “We could have done it, were it not for love.”
Silver shakes his head. “The war could not have started without it. We would not have been, without it.”
Flint exhales sharply. He looks at Silver, and Silver looks at him.
“‘We came into the world for the sake of one another’,” he says, a devout man’s recitation. “Thomas used to quote that line at me all the time.”
Silver’s eyes spark with something like hope.
Know no shame, Flint thinks.
“I still love you, John Silver,” he says, and this time he doesn’t stop his hand from reaching out – from caressing Silver’s cheek, and from wiping away the tears from under his eyes.
Silver makes a broken noise, and kisses him.
They kiss with the passion of years, of decades. They kiss with the pain of betrayal, and the anger of regret. Silver drops his crutch, and leans on Flint. They sink to the ground together, as he pushes Flint over into the grass.
“Fuck,” he says briefly, breathing heavily. “I – you know I – how I felt. All those years, watching you. I wish we’d–”
“Don’t,” Flint says, and pulls him back down to kiss him. He pushes all his grief into his hands, and his mouth, and lets his feelings sink into Silver’s skin. They both strip off their clothing piece by piece, desperate to try and close the insurmountable gap between them. As though if their bodies lie close enough, it will erase the years that have passed.
They kiss, and touch, and press into each other. Flint discovers that he is both immediately comfortable with Silver and immediately shy – this man is not Thomas, could never be Thomas. His body is so different, his scent so heady with salt in place of soil. He touches more and more tentatively, wanting to slow down and map every inch of Silver, mile by mile. Wanting to know the man he has sought to understand for so many years.
“Don’t you fucking dare stop now,” Silver growls, and thrusts into his thigh, sharp and hard and impatient. “Do you know how long I have dreamt of this?”
Flint tilts his head back and laughs, bold and true. It is the sound Silver has been searching for, and his whole body trembles with revelation.
“I hate you,” Silver says, as Flint takes them both in hand. It takes only a little while before he is watching Flint come, and follows him over.
“I love you,” Silver says, and is the truest thing he has ever said.
They lie together in the grass, and watch constellations of stars emerge from the darkness.