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‘Where is that?’ India asked, spyglass trained on the land mass that passed slowly before them. He saw bright forests and white beaches, and in the centre, with trees marched up its slopes, a single mountain peak that in the light seemed capped with silver.
‘West Indigo,’ Hairless said. ‘Just you wait honey, you’re soon to see something even better.’
A while later, separated by only a turquoise channel whose lush beauty betrayed its shallowness (India wondered if you could wade through it without even needing a boat), East Indigo floated into view.
‘What the shank is that?’ India gasped.
‘Nice, ain’t it?’ rumbled Big Cage.
‘That’s the East Indigo Palace,’ Hairless said. ‘Abode of Hong Kong Silver.’
‘I’ve heard of him.’
‘You’d be hard pressed not to, sugar. Biggest merchant trader in the Caribbean. And I mean biggest.’
‘That’s sure a nice way of putting it,’ Dessica chimed in, joining them at the rail and leaning over, the sun turning her skull gold. ‘Silver might be as rich as an Aztec, but he’s also the most disreputable man in the Caribbean. The man’s got to where he is by being a double-crossing crook. Would sell his own grandmother if it added another inch to his piles of gold. You’d call him a pirate if he ever set sail.’
‘I never said he was an honest merchant trader,’ Hairless said. ‘If there’s any such thing.’
‘Nice, ain’t it?’ Big Cage said again.
‘It sure is,’ India said. A path of golden sand, somehow hardened and set like stone, wound from the beach and carved up a hill, flanked on both sides by the tallest palm trees he’d ever seen. Away from the path, vibrant greenery gave way to tangled jungle, which clustered in, eager to get closer to the palace, and steal its photosynthetic radiance. Huge white domes burst like soap bubbles from the island’s centre at the top of the hill, only matched in shining dominance by two gold-and-white minarets that stabbed into the blue sky.
‘He must be swimming in coin,’ India murmured. He looked at where the path broadened and met the palace, huge gates that glowed in the sunlight – and perhaps they too were made of gold.
‘Oh, he is,’ Hairless said. ‘Don’t get jealous now.’
‘Too late,’ India said. He imagined what it would be like to live in such a place, a place fit for an emperor. When East Indigo was finally lost to his vision, he retired quietly to his cabin and closed his eyes, basking in the idea that he did indeed live and rule there, waking up every morning on a shifting bed of Aztec coins.
India was roused from his bed one morning by Spares mumbling at him and shaking his arm. India felt a flash of fear; it was only the second time he’d been woken up to the face of a skeleton staring down at him, and this one was a lot closer, far too close. Whilst they no longer troubled him when he was up and about (with the possible exception of Blackbone), it was different when you were surprised out of the dull confusion and uncertainties of sleep into confronting a grinning visage of the dead.
Spares must have noticed the shock that passed briefly across his face, for he took a step back. ‘Begging your pardon, mate,’ he said. ‘Didn’t mean to shock you or nothing.’
‘Spares,’ India said, letting his heart rate slow back down. ‘What’s going on?’
‘We’re here, that’s what,’ Spares said. ‘Grimmer told me to fetch you.’
‘Here, where’s here?’ India sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
‘We’re anchored at Lonely Carib. Dropping the boats now.’
Spares left and India got up and dressed, pausing before putting on the coat Hairless had found him. It felt heavier than usual. He looked out the porthole and saw a sliver of beach, grey in the dawn light.
He ran a hand through his hair, rough and shaggy from all the sea spray. Mrs Wayles would have held him down and forced a brush through it, he thought with a small smile. Not that it would have helped; he’d only have been straight back out tumbling in the muddy alleys of Rug, or pushing through the jungle, raked by bad-tempered undergrowth on the way to the Aztec Tomb.
‘Is that a boy under there?’ Mrs Wayles used to say. ‘Or is it a bush? Has part of the jungle just uprooted and walked in? For the life of me I just can’t tell.’
India felt a strange, uncomfortable pang as they rowed towards the beach. He hadn’t said anything since he’d got in the boat. Grimmer too was especially quiet. Ahead of them the beach looked cold and sad.
Two of the skeletons got out into the water and pulled it up onto the shore. India got out and walked up the beach a short way. The hard sand crunched under his boots. It was the first time his feet had touched anything other than Mexico Island. It was a surreal and unsettling experience. He looked back at the ship, but saw only a thick, dark mist. He squinted and tried to envisage the ship there, knowing it was there, and bit by bit he saw the sails, the grey hull . . . but as soon as he relaxed the mist crawled in once more.
The skeletons were sitting about on the beach. A couple had wandered into the jungle. Some were speaking in couples or small groups, others like Grimmer were looking back out at the sea, or drawing idle patterns in the sand. Perhaps it was all in his head, but there seemed a melancholy air over everything. He sensed this was a different kind of escape for these ‘jolly rogers’, a different kind of relief than the drinking and dancing that had formed their last landing.
‘This is it,’ Dessica said as she approached him, her head low. ‘We’re all sorry to see you go.’
‘I don’t want to go,’ India said. A few of the other skeletons were standing up and coming over. Big Cage. Hairless. Spares.
Dessica shook her head, smiling. ‘Don’t be silly. The dead are no company for the living.’
‘You’ve got your whole life to live, honey,’ Hairless said.
‘Sorry you gotta go, mate,’ Spares said. ‘We’ve all enjoyed, uh, having you on board. It’s been lively.’
‘I have to?’
‘You know you do,’ Hairless said, gently.
‘Never meant to capture you in the first place,’ Spares said, kicking the sand with his feet. ‘Gotta watch the drinking.’
Big Cage came forward, and reached out with his arms. India awkwardly opened his own arms and Big Cage hugged him, almost crushing him.
‘Leave off him you big oaf,’ Spares said. ‘You’ll crush the lad.’ He shook his head as though annoyed, and wandered off.
‘Miss you,’ Big Cage said, and turned and followed Spares.
‘You too,’ India said, too quiet for Big Cage to hear.
‘Go and say your farewells to Grimmer,’ Dessica said. She touched her skull, and Hairless blew him a kiss, and the two of them walked away.
India saw a few of the other skeletons on the beach give him nods and waves, and he waved back. He pinched his eyes and approached Grimmer, who was still sat on the sand.
‘Come with me,’ India said.
‘No,’ Grimmer said, not looking at him. ‘I can’t.’
‘Don’t be naïve. Look, go on.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘I don’t want to be by myself.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ Grimmer said. When India still hadn’t moved, he picked up a pebble, tightened his bone fingers around it and then turned and threw it at him. India dodged it; he didn’t know if it was supposed to hit him or not.
‘Go away!’ Grimmer said. ‘Leave me be. Go and join the land of the damned living.’
India looked at him with hurt, angry eyes, and then turned and walked away. When he’d reached the edge of the beach he glanced back. Grimmer was sat in the same spot, not moving, staring down at the sand.
India stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and disappeared into the jungle.