ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 13

 

      They assembled in the necromancer’s antechamber for the wedding ceremony, Nonie feeling almost bride-like, after the scented-water bath, and the fussing by the servants.  I imagine this is the closest I’ll ever come, she thought with amusement.  She meant it, when she’d told her purported bridegroom that she was not the marrying kind—there were far too many skeletons in her closet, and besides, she was a restless soul, and rarely in one place for any length of time.   

     Fatima had helped her dress in the green brocade takchita, the rich silk sliding coolly against Nonie’s skin.  Her hair—newly washed, and thus more unruly than ever—had been firmly tucked under a gossamer veil, although it was a faint hope, to think that it would stay thus constrained for very long.

     “Tell me what I am supposed to do, Fatima, so that I don’t shock the shaman.”

      “You must stand—” the woman hesitated, afraid to offer insult “—quietly.”

       Laughing, Nonie folded her hands before her, and adopted a demure posture. “I won’t embarrass you, Fatima, I promise.  Is there a ring involved? I notice you do not wear a ring.”

       The soft eyes met hers. “No—no rings,” the woman replied, and again, Nonie had the uneasy feeling that information was being withheld.  She couldn’t dwell on it for long, however, because her purported bridegroom had appeared, looking very handsome in his own formal garment, the matching taqiyah atop his head only reminding her that she was doing something completely outlandish.

       “Sir.”  Nonie curtseyed low, with a mock-solemn expression.

       “Madam,” he replied, and when his eyes met hers, she could feel a flood of warmth to the soles of her new silk slippers. He then turned to say a few words in Arabic to the servant who’d accompanied him.

       Nonie—who was necessarily good at remembering faces—recognized the guard who’d brought Jamie to meet with her—the one Jamie said was posted at the slave market. As the man made a polite gesture, indicating that she was to come and stand beside the necromancer, she noted in a mild tone, “So; this slave-tender performs weddings, in his spare time?”

      Unfazed, her bridegroom explained, “Under religious law, any man can officiate at a wedding—there is no requirement that a qadi preside.” He nodded toward the other man. “Jamil is someone who can be trusted, and that is why he was summoned.”

      With a shrug of acknowledgment, Nonie moved to take her place beside the necromancer, and decided to say no more. She was no expert on Muslim weddings, but she had a vague understanding that the bride and groom were separated, whilst the ceremony was conducted.  Therefore, it seemed likely that this ritual was nothing more than a hastily-put-together farce—although it didn’t matter in the first place; it was only important that the French believe she was now the chattel property of the Dey’s necromancer, and therefore protected, to some extent.

       Jamil spoke the ritual, the Arabic words the only sound in the silent room. With a smile tugging at her mouth, Nonie glanced up at her bridegroom, but he did not return her glance, his own gaze intent upon the officiate.  A bit chastened, she schooled her features to do the same, even though she couldn’t follow the words.   I should do him the courtesy of paying attention, she thought; after all, he is paying attention, even though this is completely routine for him. And he did act to save me from having to crawl into bed with the Dey—not that I would have stood for such a thing, of course.

      She jumped slightly, when the necromancer made a response.  He then turned to her and took her hand in his. “You must give your consent.”

      “I do,” she replied, not certain if this was what one said.  Apparently it was, because the other man made a conclusory recitation, and then spread his hands.

      “That’s it?” asked Nonie in surprise.  “Small wonder, that you do it at the drop of a hat.”

       The necromancer—now ostensibly her husband, by all amazing things—led her by the hand to a table. “You must sign a document, and then we are finished.”

       She signed her name in the perfect copperplate Tanny had taught them, in her determination to see them all educated. “What is my name, now; do I take yours?”

       There was the barest hesitation. “Fejn—your name is Fejn, but it is not necessary to use it, if you would rather not.”

       Nodding, she was philosophical; it came as no surprise that he used a false name, which was yet another reason this ceremony would have no import.  “Now will you tell me where you hail from?”

       “No, I will not,” he replied with a small smile, and met her eyes, the expression in his own unguarded, and warm. Why, he is very happy about this, she thought, and was rather touched.  I suppose I am too—if I am not being led into a trap, that is; regrettably, it is hard to see past the bed in the corner, and my unbridled lust for this man.

       She soon realized—with a twinge of disappointment—that he was not going to throw her down on that selfsame bed as soon as the others discreetly withdrew; instead, he invited her to sit with him on the thick carpet before the hearth.

      She hesitated, then decided there was no time like the present to be honest with one’s newly-acquired faux husband.  “Could we sit by the window instead? I don’t much care for looking into the fire.”

     “Of course,” he said easily, and took her hand to help her settle on the cushioned window bench.

     In response to his offer of wine, she raised a skeptical brow. “Are you allowed to drink wine?”

     “No, but you may, if you’d like.”

     “You don’t happen to have any whiskey?” she teased. “Irish whiskey?”

      “Am I so frightening?”

       There was that warmth in his eyes again; Lord, she was fast becoming addicted to it. “No—it’s only that I should keep my wits about me. Although a dose of Dutch courage does come in handy, on occasion.”  Deciding she would offer him an equal measure of warmth, she replied honestly, “I’m not frightened of you at all—although perhaps I should be.  I feel as though I’ve known you all my life.  It is the strangest thing.”

     “Yes; I felt the same, when I first saw you.”

      She looked into his eyes, believed him, and felt a tightening sensation, within her breast. Fighting against it, she teased, “And then you coshed me out.”

      He tilted his head in acknowledgment, a small smile playing about his lips. “Regrettable, but necessary.”  With a gesture that seemed entirely natural, he took one of her hands in his, and with the other, stroked the top with his fingertips.

      With some fascination, she watched his hand stroke hers, and struggled for something light to say. “I suppose it is a very effective technique for securing a wife.” 

      “Nonie,” he said softly, lifting his hand to trace her jaw line. “You needn’t—” he paused, thinking about what it was he wanted to say. “You needn’t entertain me; you may be yourself.”

     Tentatively, she lifted her own hand, and closed her fingers around his wrist, as he caressed her face. “It comes naturally, I’m afraid—it’s the way I deal with the world.” She closed her eyes, surrendering to the sensation of his touch on her skin.

     His fingers traveled up the side of her face and gently, he pulled off her veil, loosing her hair.  “You needn’t.” With light fingers, he stroked the hair away from her temple, raking through the thick curls, as though feeling the texture of it. “I want you to know that you can trust me—you can show what lies beneath.” 

     She decided he was very astute, this Muslim husband of hers, and opened her eyes. “I think you’d be a bit shocked.”  

     His hand followed her hair down to the side of her neck, and his thumb brushed her throat. “No; you are so alive; so vivid—like a flame.”

      With a mighty effort, she fought the inclination to melt into him and disappear completely—good God, what was she thinking? “That is a very fine compliment, and I am truly trying to refrain from making a smart remark about my freckles.”

     His lips softened into a smile. “If you would like to make a smart remark, you must do so. Please, do not be careful with me.” To emphasize the point, he leaned forward and kissed her gently on the mouth, his hand cradling her face.

     Oh, she thought as his mouth moved on hers.  Oh—this is going to be wonderful.  “I’m not very good at being honest,” she whispered into his mouth. “It comes from having so little practice.”

     “You may practice with me, all you like.” He tilted his head slightly and kissed the side of her face; the corner of her mouth.

     “I am dying to get you into bed, Tahriz.”  There—now, there was a strong dose of honest honesty.

     “Then let us do that.” He took her hand, and as they rose, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her again—almost chastely—as she leaned in and tried to fight the urge to press herself against the length of him.  He obviously wanted to take matters slowly, and she should allow him the lead on this—if she didn’t explode from raw longing, first.

      With an arm around her waist, he drew her over to the bed, and then began to undress her, pausing on occasion to kiss her mouth, her throat, her bare shoulder. “So beautiful,” he whispered, and she sighed with delight, as she pulled at his own clothes.

     And although he seemed inclined to linger in this upright position, there was only so much that a body could bear, and so she sank back onto the silken bed, pulling him atop her with gentle insistence. 

     Ah, that seemed to turn the trick, as the gentle and languorous kisses were now replaced by the more heated variety, which she met with an equal measure of heat.

    “I don’t want to hurt you,” he breathed against her ear in a ragged whisper, “You must stop me, if I do.”

    Not a chance, she thought in a haze, as she arched against him. “All right, Tahriz—but let’s not be over-cautious, here—”

     He chuckled, and then she chuckled, as she clung to him, relishing the novel combination of lust and tenderness, and deciding right then and there that she was going to save him from himself, if it was the last thing she did.