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Lightbringer

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Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep…
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

The mirror propped up over the dresser used to belong to Madi’s mother. There was a time when it had stood, proud and untarnished, reflecting the face of a true Queen. That had been years ago. With a sense of bitterness and dread, Madi leaned closer to the distorted glass, and angrily yanked at the grey hair that had dared to make its way into the hairline above her brow.

This was not right. She was never supposed to grow old.

She had been ready: to fight, to die. She remembered that feeling, that freedom in the knowledge that her path had been paved, that destiny awaited. Golden and glorious. Her hips encased in the loose trousers that tucked into the tall boots, she imagined herself storming into battle at the helm of a pirate flotilla. With him at her side. Her father, her captain, her friend.

Their war, her war, it had been taken from her. That man had been taken it from her. Now all she donned were the loose skirts of a wife, and the mask of a woman always looking past the thing that stood before her, towards another point in time, to what may have been.

After the war ended, after most of the others left, and the island fell quiet again, it had been difficult to imagine that life might simply keep on going. How days stretched into months, into years. Her mother passed away quietly, and it should have hurt more than it did. But Madi had known her mother, she had shored up sufficient time with her to still hear her words in the wind. She had known her mother’s mind and her will and her love, she had nothing to regret for nothing had been left unsaid between them. How strange it was then, that what she always seemed to mourn the most had been the unknowable, the what-could-have-been. The missing space in her life where she should have had a father. The empty space in her hand where she may have held a sword, had Flint still been around to teach her as he had taught the man who had destroyed them both.

Still, it was difficult to be alone. She had fought against the memory of John’s arms around her when her father died. The desire to be held that way again taunted her in her weakness. He was still there, on her island, the white man who rose from the sea and decided to use his will to change her life, to rob her of her choices. Oh, she hated him as much as she had loved him!

Finding him had been easy. It had been easy to put on a resigned mask to hide the scorn. He had waited for her, or so he had said, but up on that cliff, she did not need him to speak to know his mind had been far, far away. He had not been expecting her and his face had reflected the gamut of emotions: surprise, relief, terror. Hope.

“Tell me again what you did,” she had said.

And he had obeyed, unleashing that clever mouth of his, that burned like a furnace and opened the gates to her heart like Orpheus’ lyre to the Underworld.

Tell me what you did.

She enjoyed seeing the pain in his eyes when he spoke of it. With each repetition, each iteration, more and more convinced that he was telling her the truth. There had been no embellishment in his narrative, only the exhaustion of a man trapped inside a nightmare of his own making.

Tell me how he looked when you last saw him. Tell me what was the last thing he had said to you. Tell me. Tell me.

Until one night, he no longer had the strength to obey her.

“Please,” his lips moved with visible strain over his teeth. “No more. Don’t make me speak of it anymore.”

“You took him from me,” she had replied, her eyes set on the far off horizon. “He mattered to me. I never even got to say goodbye.”

“I thought you had forgiven me.” His voice trembled, the dread in it palpable in the humid night air.

“I can forgive you,” she said, “for ruining my war, for compromising my freedom, for destroying everything that I was ready to fight and die for. But that man loved you, you said you had his true friendship, and if it was not enough to protect him from you, then why should it be enough for me?” Silver’s head had hung low over his chest and from that angle, half-lit by the dying candlelight, he might have been one of the carvings in the books her father had smuggled into the camp for her over the years. “So you will tell me again, as many times as it takes for me to believe you, that you did it out of mercy. That you did it out of love. That you are tortured by it the same way that I am tortured by your betrayal.”

“I saw no other way to save you… both of you,” he’d whispered.

At night, she could close her eyes and revel in the fact that his touch, as ever, had been masterful. But there was very little comfort to be found in the body when you could never trust the heart that beat within its confines.

***

John,

I’m doing this for us. Please do not follow me.

Madi.

Three years had passed since the end of the war. She had tried, to the best of her ability, to be a strong leader to her people, her mother’s worthy heir. But their numbers had dwindled during the war and never fully recovered. Their island, their safe refuge, was no longer safe. All of the Caribbean knew where they lived and the supply lines they now had to rely on to survive were hardly going to be around forever. Soon, any allies she might have once had in Nassau might forget her, and the trail she had set herself upon would grow colder than her husband’s heart.

No. That had been an unkindness. John’s heart was never as cold as he would have liked others to believe. He was not him. He was not Long John Silver - that man, that monster - had been Billy Bones’ creation. If only John’s heart had been as stone cold as that, he would’ve listened to her, killed Billy Bones, and perhaps they would all have been living a very different life.

Perhaps.

But then again, he did send Tom Morgan to Georgia long before Rogers brought Spain upon their doorstep.

Or did he?

How can you heal a heart that cannot trust?

Nassau had been rebuilt and teamed again with life and unbridled energy. A sign in the square proudly proclaimed: Piracy expelled, commerce restored! Madi clenched her jaw as she walked past it. So, this is all she and Flint had been: two mad Don Quixotes, tilting their spears against windmills. And there she stood, in a town whose mayor was a former pirate, run by a woman who had been instrumental in stealing the Urca gold, while they proclaimed their so-called victory for the world to see, and she and her people remained shackled throughout the New World with dehumanizing bonds. While Flint too might still be in shackles, for daring to be different, for daring to love a man. For daring to love two men: one of whom had not been worthy of his love.

That is, if he was actually still alive.

Madi’s hand clenched over the hilt of her dagger that hung hidden among the deceptive layers of her skirts. No one would pay her any heed here. She lowered her head and crept like a shadow past the merchants pushing their wares, past the restored storefronts, local drunkards brawling on the steps of the tavern, and up the stairs where she suspected she would be able to find the one true power in Nassau: the woman who might still hold the keys to all their futures.

Max had been at her desk, writing. The afternoon sun that cast its rays through the unshuttered windows illuminated her form to great advantage. They had not been officially introduced, of course, but Madi had heard enough to recognize the woman before her. Her silken hair and her embroidered bodice might have been enough to fool a casual passerby, but Madi’s keen eye was not as easily duped. After all, no one better than her knew that a pretty face could always hide a dark abyss.

She latched the door and unsheathed her dagger. “Don’t call anyone,” she spoke evenly, as Max looked up from her books. “I do not come to cause you harm.”

“Then why are you brandishing arms?” Max asked, her voice the same kittenish purr that Madi had always imagined when John had spoken of his former business partner.

Madi took a few steps towards the desk and lay the dagger on the edge of the polished wood. “Do you know who I am?” Max made as if to rise, but Madi extended her arm towards her in a gesture the broached no argument. “Sit.” Madi drew out the other chair and sat down yourself. “I see you do not know who I am. And yet, I imagine, you knew my father. And my husband. And Eleanor Guthrie.”

“Eleanor?” Max’s brow twitched.

“I was with her, when Woodes Rogers brought Spain upon Nassau. I was with her when she died, defending herself from the embodiment of her nightmares. Because she had been loved so poorly.” Madi observed with curious calm as Max’s hand trembled and pressed against the bones of her corset. “We had been children together, Eleanor and I. But I do not have to explain to you the difference between a playmate and a slave, do I?”

“You are Mr. Scott’s daughter,” Max finally spoke, collecting herself and lifting her chin defiantly. “And John Silver’s wife.”

“My name is Madi.”

“Why are you here?”

“To resurrect a ghost from our past.”

“Come, ma chère, let us speak plainly.”

Madi shifted in her seat. This was it: all of her hopes were riding on being able to convince this woman to help her. And she had very little leverage, but if she had learned anything from her husband and from Flint, it was the power of knowing someone’s story.

“A few years ago, your partner, Jack Rackham, and my husband made a deal. With this deal, you were able to buy yourself stability, power, position. Perhaps even freedom. Freedom to be who you are. Freedom to choose whom you love. But there was a cost to this deal, an invisible cost, a cost felt only too keenly by me and by my people.” Madi paused, both to let her words sink in as well as to collect her thoughts. “Because of the deal you struck, thousands, maybe millions, may never be free like you and I are free. You may not have been there yourself, but you had a hand in the subjugation of the Maroon uprising, as surely as the white men who had decided they knew better how we should live, and love, and what we should be allowed to die for.” Bile rose up to Madi’s clenched jaw. “My husband was one of those men.”

“You married him,” Max replied, her face unreadable.

“Your actions left me bereft of choice.”

Max’s small hand beat out a nervous staccato against the wood of her desk. “What do you want from me now? The war is over. Life goes on.”

“Not for all of us.” Madi gathered herself, bracing her hand against her abdomen, where a stone lay that had sunk and settled over three years ago. “Captain Flint…”

“Captain Flint is gone,” Max spat out, propelled by sheer instinct, as if it had been a mantra she had heard repeated over and over again.

“My husband told me that he had taken Flint to a place you had once told him about. A plantation in Georgia, where men unjustly imprisoned in England could be kept in bonded isolation from the same civilization that had once rejected them.”

Max shifted in her seat. “I know of the place, but not of this story.” Her little, lithe hands had produced an embroidered handkerchief from her bodice, which she now twisted and turned between her fingers as Madi spoke. “How do you know your husband did not simply kill Captain Flint?”

Madi inclined her head forward. “I cannot be certain. That is why I am here.”

“I still do not see what any of this has to do with me,” Max exhaled, twisting the material in her hand again.

“You were a slave once. You loved Eleanor once…”

“Your husband has a big mouth!” Max fumed.

“Do you feel no regrets, no remorse over the role you played in all this? I cannot save Captain Flint alone.”

“Save Flint?” Max rose. “Even if he was still alive, which is unlikely, why would I help you save him? We have Nassau now. We have stability now. We have peace now!”

Madi rose in turn and picked her dagger up off the table. “Does he not deserve to be free?” The two women faced each other across the table as if across the ocean. “I need money. If my husband had been telling the truth, I need enough money to buy freedom for two men. And I need armed men with me, in case the proprietor refuses. Look at me!” Madi shouted, losing all patience. “You know I cannot do this alone. Had I not been this…” Her hand swept over her own body. “I would have gone to Georgia… I would have torn those gates down with my bare hands! Captain Flint was my friend.” She willed the tears that threatened to creep up back into her eye sockets. “I cannot have peace until I’m certain that he’s found his own. Do not make me hurt you. I do not wish to hurt you. I only wish to save my friend.”

The handkerchief had fallen from Max’s hand, but her bosom still heaved with each labored breath.

“If I help you,” Max spoke at last, her face once more donning the mask of cool composure, “you must promise me that you and he shall never return to Nassau. You must promise me that you and he shall never again bring war to my doorstep.” Hands braced against the desk, Max leaned forward, fearless of Madi’s blade. “Promise me!”

Madi sheathed her blade and stretched out her hand. “You have my word.” Max’s hand pressed against her palm. “You can count on me to keep it.”

“Then you can rely on my help.”

***