India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #5

Following on from Part 4.

 

THREE

 

 

Over the next few days India got to know the crew fairly well. At first many of them had avoided him, and he’d seen the wariness in others’ eyes when he talked to them. A few were grouchy, and one skeleton by the name of Liver told him to shank off as soon as he approached. But a few were nice, like Big Cage who was as friendly as he was big, or Hairless, who helped him through finding his sea-legs and found him a nautical coat in the hold that was only a little oversized. Spares was always amusing company, especially when he was drunk. Sockets was a bit odd, but India got used to him. And Dessica, another female jolly roger (how they usually seemed to refer to themselves), had spoken to him at length on the movements of whales, the names of all the sails and masts, and even shown him how to tie different kinds of knot. And as the days passed, and India made himself known, rarely staying put for more than the length of a conversation, and helping out when he could, those who avoided him showed their faces, and those who were grouchy softened. It was only Liver who remained unpleasant more often than not, and India had barely exchanged more than a handful of words with Blackbone. Blackbone usually stayed in his cabin, anyway (the only one bar India with his own private cabin), and when they passed each other India would walk fast, for his near-silent presence sent a chill down India’s spine.

It was Grimmer though, who was the surest tether between India and his sanity. From the first day he’d been good to India, helped him help himself and help others whenever he was around, showed him all the parts of the ship, the hold and the forecastle, the gallery and the gun deck where cannons were cobwebbed from disuse. He even took India up to the crow’s nest – thankfully India had always been a good tree climber, but climbing the rigging up so high, and looking down at the long fall to the decks below – well, at least Grimmer had been there for encouragement, and India sure wasn’t going to let himself appear weak in front of a bunch of skeletons. The final few feet had been the worst, but at last he’d toppled into the crow’s nest, breathing hard with the adrenaline, and then spent a good three or four hours reddening with the sun and feeling on top of the world, almost drunk with the sight around him, perched on a swaying wooden spire that rose up like a needle out of the great, eternal ocean. A lonely minaret in a blue desert where he was king.

Eventually though, the seasickness had come on even stronger, not to mention a light-headedness close to fainting, and he’d forced himself to descend. He’d spent a while recovering, and decided to go up there again only rarely.

On the early evening of the fourth day India saw a far-off shape; he borrowed a spyglass off Sockets and saw a red-boarded ship travelling in the other direction. He squinted but in the darkening light couldn’t make out the crew.

‘Are they pirates?’ he asked, feeling excited.

Sockets snatched the spyglass back and looked through. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Merchant ship, probably from East Indigo.’

‘Can they see us?’

Grimmer came up behind him and gripped the rail. ‘Honestly, we don’t rightly know,’ he said. ‘There was another ship yesterday, too. Truth is a number of us don’t care to look anymore, or at least we don’t shout about it if we do see something. We’ve never been boarded, we’ve never even been hailed. We don’t know if it’s just mist they see, or the illusion of a ship of no consequence or interest to anyone, or if they see nothing at all but empty sea. Or maybe they see us just as we are, but then something in them just wipes it from their minds, tells them just to pass on by. A thought that never gets to go anywhere, like it’s been chased off. All we know is the Ship of the Dead ain’t disturbed, and never has been. We’re a ghost on the ocean, mate.’

On the fifth day Grimmer came to him carrying a cutlass, with the golden hilt of another held in the thick sashes that tied around his pelvis. He flipped the sword in his hand deftly and offered it to India hilt first. ‘Here you go mate,’ he said. A few of the others on the deck gathered round, interested.

A one-armed skeleton named Cold Shoulder put his one remaining hand up. ‘Here, he’s a bit young ain’t he?’

Grimmer didn’t turn. ‘He’s got to be able to defend himself, doesn’t he?’

India looked at the blade, at its edge and its wicked point. It caught the light and flashed meanly. ‘I’ll manage without. For now,’ he said.

‘You sure?’ Grimmer said.

‘For now.’

Grimmer shrugged and tossed the sword back on the deck with a clatter. India turned away, but not before stealing one, two more glances at it lying there on the grey wood at his feet.

India remembered when he had last used a blade. He’d grown up fighting with sticks with other kids in the streets and slums of Rug and Mohawk. The orphan gang that called themselves Ratboys infested the alleyways of the poor side of Mohawk, and India had once been well acquainted with them, often fighting with and against them in confrontations ranging from friendly scuffles and stick fencing to scrapping tooth and nail. It was about the time that an increase in girls in the gang led to arguments about a change of name that Skiv became leader. He was a bad-tempered kid, bigger than India and prone to using his fists to get his own way.

Always eager for something greater than pickpocketing, something more dangerous and more impressive, it was India who had come up with the idea of raiding Jack Rush’s house.

Jack Rush was a mean, surly merchant, and he had beaten India severely when he’d caught his pockets being picked just outside his home. India hadn’t been able to walk properly for days, and the bruises had taken much longer to disappear. In the years past he sometimes looked at his reflection in the coastal Mexican seawaters and figured that his face had lost its childishness, had been beaten tougher and rougher and stripped of some measure of innocence.

In retaliation India had come up with the plan, and roped the Ratboys in on it. He’d always been an outsider to them, some days seemingly on their side, some days not. He’d never wanted to answer to somebody else, and certainly not a dumb brutish boy like Skiv.

They entered the house as the moon hung full and watching, breaking the windows and dropping like cats over the sills. The children in the streets knew everything there was worth knowing. They knew that Rush was on an overseas business trip, selling sugar to East Indigo, and would not be back for some time.

They took everything, greedily filling their pockets and pouches with jewellery and silverware and bottles of rum. India had found a necklace. Black stringed, with a pendant of tarnished silver melded to what looked like bone, gold in the very centre and frayed around the edges, like the rays of a moribund sun. He pocketed it. He pocketed something else, too.

He didn’t know who’d started the fire. Somebody knocked over something, playing around with torches and bottles of rum; it could have been anyone. The Ratboys yelled to each other as what seemed a bright, exciting flicker quickly spread and smoke rushed through the air like a punishing phantasm, as though a residing spirit of Jack Rush was left behind as guard.

They’d escaped, all of them thank shank, tumbling from the windows and bursting out the door. As soon as they were clear and most of them had scattered down various alleys, India had turned to receive a blow from Skiv. It connected with an already existing bruise from Rush, and hurt twice as much.

They pounced on each other, fists flying, knees punching into stomachs and feet lashing out. They fought dirty, like wild dogs, breaking apart every few minutes to snarl and spit and curse. Watched hungrily by the others.

‘Give it to me,’ said Skiv.

‘Give you what.’ India wiped the sweat from his face and pulled the straggled hair from his eyes.

‘The necklace. I saw you take it. You owe it to me for what happened back there.’

‘That wasn’t my fault.’

‘It was your idea to raid the place. Give it to me.’

‘You ain’t getting it.’

They met again, and India found his back hurled against the stony ground and pinned. He twisted and kicked and Skiv grabbed his throat and squeezed.

India punched Skiv’s head and his midriff, again and again, but he couldn’t get the angles or the momentum and the blows couldn’t dissuade the hands choking him, robbing him of his energy.

Black and purple motes dotted before his vision and with a sudden, almost instinctive remembrance he pulled out the shining dagger he had taken at the house. It slipped into Skiv’s side as though it was moving through butter. It met no bones.

Skiv fell aside with a yelp, and the dagger sucked itself out, still in India’s hand. India scrambled up, and without looking backwards, at Skiv or the audience of Ratboys, he ran.

India never knew what became of Skiv. He didn’t visit Mohawk again for a year, and when he did he stuck to other districts, and carefully avoided the Ratboys. If Skiv was still alive, then he would want his revenge. And if he wasn’t . . . if he wasn’t, then those loyal to him, or those who counted him among their friends might want their own revenge.

He never knew whether Skiv had lived or died, and he didn’t want to know. He’d thrown the blade away, and he’d never thrown away something valuable before. He remembered crouching outside the Aztec Tomb and shivering in the rain, his hair plastering itself to his face.

He’d never wanted to touch a blade again. He remembered the sound Skiv had made and his eyes. His eyes.

On the deck of the Ship of the Dead, India kicked the cutlass away from him without looking. And fingered the sun pendant that hung from his neck.

 

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