Sorry for the delay in India Bones and the Ship of the Dead coming out – it’s been long finished, I’m just waiting on a good cover!
In the meantime, here’s the fourth short installment, leading on from Part 3.
India walked the grey planks of the ship, feeling half-dead himself. Around him skull faces eyed him from empty sockets. There was saltspray coming in off the wind, but no part of the deck or rails felt damp; instead, the wood was dry and dusty and pock-marked. He ran his fingers along the side and it crumbled. He felt like a good enough gale would blow the whole lot into the sea. It almost didn’t seem like wood at all, and he blanched when the idea popped in his head that he was walking on grey bones.
‘You know what mate,’ a voice came from behind him, and he turned to see Grimmer.
‘I never asked you your name. And I called you rude. Where were my manners?’
‘It’s India Bones.’
Grimmer gave a short laugh, and this time India, with fixed attention, saw that the sounds seemed to be in slight discord with the movement of his jaw, and he realised they were not coming from a material presence at all. The mouthless jaw merely worked its best to accompany them.
‘Bones aye?’ Grimmer said. ‘Well you’re in the right company, that’s for sure.’
India looked back out at the sea.
‘You hungry, Mr Bones?’
‘Call me India. You eat?’
‘Sure, sure. Well, we eat for nostalgia, at any rate. But I remember what it’s like to be actually hungry. We’ve got plenty of ship biscuits. Look,’ Grimmer reached into the shadows of his coat and fished out a round black thing. ‘Take it.’
India looked at it. ‘Is it edible?’
‘You’re in no position to turn it down, let’s put it that way.’
‘Alright.’ India took it and bit off a corner. It was chewier than he figured, both salted and sugared, and not half-bad. There was a slight touch of death to it, but nothing’s perfect.
‘How many are on this ship?’ India asked.
‘Thirteen,’ Grimmer said. ‘Can’t make it up, can you? I always wonder if we’re going to get anymore, but it’s been years and no more, so maybe that’s that.’
‘For now. Can’t be having with you ruining our unlucky number,’ Grimmer said.
‘The others keep looking at me.’
‘Of course they do, what do you expect? The living stare at the dead, can’t expect the dead not to stare at the living. But look, none of us jolly rogers means you any harm. See him?’ Grimmer pointed. ‘That’s Sockets. He’s alright, he just stares a lot. And him?’ Grimmer gestured at a large skeleton with a big chest by the mainsail. ‘That’s Big Cage. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless the fly hurt him first, of course. There, she’s Hairless – and ain’t she pleased she can wear a corset now without it being hard to breathe? No more breathing for her, except out of habit.’ Grimmer turned. ‘Over there, looking rightfully sheepish, that’s Spares. Recognise him?’
‘Y-es,’ India said. ‘Yes.’ And he did. Now he saw them one by one, he realised it wasn’t that hard to tell them apart at all. It wasn’t just their clothes and adornments, or their bone structure. There was something about each of them that made them as different individuals as he and Mr Bassard.
India looked further along the ship, and saw a skeleton standing near the helm. He was taller than the others, bar Big Cage, and wore a black tricorne hat and long black coat. Belts glinting with metal were twisted and tied about his bones, and each strap holstered a pistol – three, maybe four in all. But it was the bones themselves that took India’s eyes. Alone amongst the others, his skeleton was as black as his clothes.
‘Ah,’ Grimmer said, seeing where India’s gaze lay. ‘That’s Blackbone. No, we don’t know why he looks like that. Maybe he fell deeper and darker than any of the rest of us, afore he was pulled out of the brine and onto these decks. He doesn’t speak much, and I doubt he wants you here, so best not try and make friends too hard. He’s the least jolly of all of us jolly rogers.’
‘Is he the captain?’
‘No, no. There’s no captain on this ship. But if there was, I reckon it’d be Blackbone.’
‘Can I be captain?’
‘Ha! Bit presumptuous, aren’t you? Bit quick on the draw? No, you can’t be captain. See the ship’s wheel? I told you nobody can touch it, not even Blackbone. The ship is its own master.’
‘I see,’ India said, not really seeing. Grimmer, sensing he wanted to be alone, nodded and strode slowly off.
India leaned over the side and stared at the swell of the sea. A thrill of excitement was beginning to dance around within him, marshalling troops to its cause. An excitement of having truly left Mexico Island for the first time in over thirteen years. On being on board a real ship – a grey, mouldering ship, but a ship no less – and sailing the seas with creatures of dark magic, with the dead, perhaps the only living person to have ever done so.
Well, he always did know he was special.
There was another pang of homesickness, for the alleys of Rug, the Mohawk markets, the comfort and security of Mrs Wayles and the inebriated friendship of Mr Bassard. The palms trees that swayed on the southern beach, the jungles and cliffs in the centre of the island, the Aztec Tomb . . .
But the pang was getting blown away by the sea breeze; wisp by wisp it was being replaced with salt and wood and bones.
He wondered what kind of ship it was. A brig, a frigate? It didn’t quite have the shape of anything he’d seen previously. There was less of a crew than you’d expect for a ship of this size, so a lot of space for him to cast his eyes about, filling his gaze with the huge white sails billowing in the breeze, with the forestry of the masts and the ropes and the netting. He looked at the helm, at the wheel, and imagined commanding the whole ship, turning it to his course, yelling orders to the crew, stuck to his post in sun and storm.
He drank it in, and then he returned his eyes to the sea, and drank that in too.
This wasn’t the same sea he saw from the beaches. There was no shoreline to lap against. Here, the waves moved like beasts, rolling long and fat and huge. No doubt under the surface dark leviathans with unknowable minds and purpose pushed the waves along, guiding them back and forth to each other.
An orange sun beat against his eyes and flashed off the water.
The water that was everywhere and the water that was forever.
India squinted into the sun and looked away. Had that much time passed already? How long had he been out?
He had a funny feeling inside him, a very funny feeling –
The ship plunged into another beast-wave, and the prow soared up over the crest, and India was suddenly, violently sick.
India was laid up in the hammock he’d woken in, belly finally settling and closing eyes witnessing the night through the porthole. The moon flashed over him as the great gloom of sleep folded in.
His thoughts, not yet fully dreaming, drifted like the ocean current back towards Eyeless and Rug, Mohawk and Maiden, back towards the jungles and the cliffs and, finally, deliberately, the Aztec Tomb.
A long time ago, the Caribbean had been ruled by the fabulously rich, and now very dead, Aztec Empire. Nobody were quite sure how it had ended; there were many theories, and maybe all of them were true, maybe none of them. All India knew was that the Aztecs weren’t around anymore. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t left things. There were still ruins, he knew. And where there were ruins there must, inevitably, be treasure.
India would go looking for Aztec Gold. People would laugh at him, tell him he was wasting his time. Everything here was dug up, ransacked, stolen and sold a long time ago. Same the world over. The only thing left was the lost treasure of Bucklemeir Horn, and the search for that had long been abandoned, and its existence become a mere legend.
In time India would agree that Mexico Island was barren as far as riches were concerned. But the world was much bigger; there was West and East Indigo, there was San Dillinger and Tortugal, there was India, the City of Gold on the island of Indiana, that had to have something, of course it did, and these ladies and gents who had spent their whole lives locked in their own houses had never seen any of it. They just assumed. You couldn’t just assume.
There was only one tomb he’d found on Mexico Island, a few miles east of Rug and into the jungles at the top of the cliffs there. He’d scrambled and climbed for an hour, scratched by branches, twisted by vines and cut on rocks, and when he’d got there he’d found a path that had led all the long way back to Rug itself. The tomb had been empty, of course, and not just that, it was also dusted and smoothed and there were fences up and even a sign. There were a few Ratboys and a couple of older Mohawkians lounging around the entrance and inside, drinking and guffawing. They’d given him the eye and he’d given them it back. He’d slouched over to the side of the tomb walls and put his back against it. Eventually he’d gone home.
He’d visited again, many times. He’d soon learned when nobody else would be there and would always come at these times, pacing the tomb and searching for imaginary treasure and cutting down imaginary pirates. He always took the cliff climb up to the tomb. He tried to pretend the path wasn’t there, except on the way back, when he was tired and dirty and often bruised and bleeding, and the moon was out and lit the cliff as the quick route to death. The path lay half gleaming in stops and starts, as though draped silver had itself been clad in shifting, filtered shadows.
India’s breathing slowed, and the shadows of that jungle path danced about him, taking on black, grinning shapes, and then they were sails, whipping at him from all sides with the wind that seemed to suck itself from the very earth, and the trees were gone, the path was gone, there was only water and salt, salt as far as the eye could see . . .