ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 41

 

     Checking herself mid-leap, Nonie turned and clawed for a handhold on the cannon’s barrel, grimacing as she knocked her forearms against the cold iron in the process.  If they thought she’d stolen the pearls, it meant that the pearls were missing, and if the pearls were missing, that meant their assignment had to be scrubbed.   She’d never scrubbed an assignment, and would be damned if her very last one ended in such a wretched fashion.

     Clutching the cannon and swinging from the side of the ship, Nonie tried to grip the barrel in an awkward embrace whilst stretching her feet in an unsuccessful attempt to get a foothold on the side of the hull. The Agha’s men rushed to secure her, and she peered over the cannon to meet Tahriz’s unhappy gaze—but he must know that they’d never let her get away in the water; not if they thought she had the pearls. Best drum up a new plan on the fly, which she did better than most.

     She cried out in alarm as multiple hands dragged her ignominiously back onto the gun deck, and after she’d gained her feet, she surveyed her bruised and scraped arms, noting that Jamie was no longer amongst the sailors. “Normandy,” she said loudly in disgust, and straightened her head dress.

     The Agha stood before her, with the necromancer corralled between two guards—it appeared the Agha’s men remembered the lightning weapon, and were reluctant to seize him.

     Hoping he remembered seeing her use the “safe” signal with Jamie, Nonie placed her right hand on her left shoulder, and met her husband’s eyes for a moment. During their Normandy assignment, she and Jamie had needed a diversion and so, very obligingly, Jamie had started ringing the fire bell at the grain silo. Nothing like a healthy dose of fear, to disrupt the proceedings.

     Tahriz must have understood her unspoken message, because he said a quiet word in his own language—no doubt directed to Jamil, who stood with arms crossed, watching these developments with a stoic expression.

     Frowning at Jamil, the Agha asked an impatient question in Arabic, no doubt wondering why a slave master had found his way onto the Frenchman’s ship, and the man began a rambling, defensive explanation which sounded as though—in the international language of foot soldiers everywhere—he was only doing what Tahriz told him to do, and was not to blame for any repercussions.

     “The man’s a blackguard—always following me around,” Nonie interrupted hotly, pulling her arm angrily out of the grip of a guard. “I wouldn’t believe a word he says.”

     “Silence.”    The Agha turned his gaze from Jamil, and surveyed her for a moment, his expression cold and slightly incredulous. “I have lately heard the most extraordinary rumors about you, madam.”

     Stung, Nonie retorted, “Well, if it was my landlord, that was a misunderstanding, only.  You shouldn’t believe everything you’re told.”

      The Agha pressed his fleshy lips into a thin, angry line. “Where are the pearls?”

     Her eyes wide, Nonie shrugged her shoulders. “I could ask the same question. I lay claim to the ones Captain Spoor bestowed upon me, and it is the height of unfairness that they were taken away.”  She paused, thinking about it. “I certainly earned them.”

     The Agha took a menacing step closer, and made an impatient gesture toward the gun-port. “Then why were you trying to escape?”

     Flustered, Nonie ducked her chin slightly, and cast a self-conscious glance toward Tahriz. “I was trying to stow away to France, so as to escape this place and my wretched, wretched, husband—who was forced upon me without so much as a by-your-leave.  When he showed up here, I decided to jump.” She paused, and leaned forward to add in a scandalized tone, “You have no idea what he makes me do.”

     There was a pause, whilst the men surrounding her contemplated this revelation in stunned silence. It was a useful tactic; Nonie had discovered early in her career that men’s minds—even the best of them—went blank at a sexual reference.  They went even blanker at the sight of naked female breasts, but this did not seem the time nor the place.

     Recovering, the Agha made an abrupt gesture to his men.  “Search her.”

      “You will not touch my wife,” said the necromancer, in no uncertain terms.

     “We’ll compromise,” Nonie suggested, stalling, and wishing Jamie would hurry. “I’ll remove my kaftan, and you’ll see for yourself that I do not have the pearls.” With slow, deliberative movements, she bestowed a teasing glance on the guards, and began to untie her fastenings, pulling her overdress over her head, while the men surrounding her watched in abject silence. Unhurried, she began to unhook the kaftan itself, her fingers brushing against the pistol hidden in the placket at her waist.  Come along, Jamie—no time like the present—

     One of the Agha’s men tore his gaze from Nonie, and lifted his head. He made a comment in Arabic, just as the smell of something burning could be discerned. With a thunderous report, two of the cannons at the other end of the deck fired, the heavy weapons recoiling with the blast, and smoke filling the narrow confines of the area. With panicked cries, the Agha’s men drew their weapons, and closed around the Agha in confusion, whilst Nonie felt Tahriz grasp her around the waist, and propel her toward the stairs under the cover of the smoke. 

    “Hold,” she protested. “Jamie will—”

    “If you remain here, I am helpless,” he said in her ear. “Come, you must get off.”

     Lord, she thought; I suppose I must do as he says—he’s my husband, after all.  “All right, then.”

     Grasping her hand, he pulled her up the companionway, away from the confused shouts of the Agha’s men, only to be met by a throng of French sailors who were rapidly coming the other way down the stairs, to find out why the ship’s cannons were firing off.

     “There’s a fire, down below,” Tahriz shouted in French, as he held out an arm to flatten Nonie against the bulkhead. “Man the buckets.”

     With cries of alarm, the men hurried past them to the gun deck—a fire on board was a grave danger, and superseded any paltry consideration of pearls and double-dealings.

     “Good one,” Nonie panted, as they emerged onto the main deck, where the cries of fire were being echoed back to others.

 With a quick glance around them, Tahriz dodged running sailors and led her toward the stern, away from the confusion of the main deck.   His gaze ran over her, as he lifted her to the back balustrade. “Can you swim in the kaftan?”

     “I swim like a seal,” she assured him. “Where are the pearls?”

     “I know not,” he said in a repressive tone, and steadied her on the railing.  “Over you go.”

     “Tahriz,” she protested, “if the pearls aren’t on board—”

     “Not now, Nonie.  I don’t want to push you, but I will.”

      “I rather like it when you push me,” she teased, but had no further opportunity for ribald comments, as a voice rang out from the quarterdeck above them.

“Stop, or I will shoot her.”

     Nonie froze where she stood, and met Tahriz’s gaze in puzzlement, before they both slowly turned to face Jamie, who stood on the quarterdeck, his pistol aimed at Nonie.  A cohort of French sailors backed him up, their own weapons at the ready. 

     Now, here’s a wrinkle, Nonie thought, as she raised her hands, and backed away from the railing. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “—perhaps you mean to shoot the necromancer, here.”

     “Silence,” Jamie exhorted, his pistol never wavering. “Now come away from there, or you’ll never find yourself in Saragossa again.”

     Lord, thought Nonie in abject confusion. What’s afoot? When cornered, the Saragossa mark had tried to extort his way out of his troubles—little good it had done him; she and Jamie were not extortable.  I feel as though I’m shooting at birds in the dark, she thought a bit crossly as she walked slowly toward Jamie.  Honestly; why didn’t he just pretend to shoot Tahriz into the sea, and be done with it?

     She was soon to see the reason, as they made a reluctant procession toward the bow of the ship.  The panicked sounds below decks were subsiding, as the sailors realized there was no fire, and instead, Nonie beheld a throng of angry men gathered in the foredeck—the Dey and his entourage on one side, and Le Capitaine and his guards on the other, each group shouting heated recriminations at the other. Behind her, she heard Tahriz make a dismayed sound, just before some of the men moved aside, so that she could see what everyone else could see; Fatima, balanced on the narrow bowsprit that extended from the ship’s bow over the water, a basket resting on her hip, and a tangle of pearls in one hand, outstretched over the churning sea.

     “Mother a’ mercy,” breathed Nonie.  “It is Saragossa.”