ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 14

 

     “It is a fine thing, to be a wife.”  Nonie spoke sleepily from the bed, watching the necromancer as he stood by the window and gazed out, the lifted curtain allowing a narrow shaft of bright sunlight into the room.

     “I am sorry—did I wake you?” He turned to faced her, a robe wrapped negligently around his lanky frame—Lord, he was a good-looking specimen, particularly now that she’d examined every inch of him.

     “No. What is it you’re thinking, over there?”  She smiled, having a very good guess.

     “I am thinking it is a fine thing to have a wife.” 

     She laughed aloud. “Come here, then, and I will reward you for such a kind thought.”  Mainly, she wanted to test out her theory—although she was fairly certain of her theory.  It would be fun to test it out again, though.

     He left the curtain slightly open, and came to sit beside her on the bed, reaching to smooth down her untamed hair with a tender expression—she had come to the conclusion that he was very fond of her hair, which only demonstrated the depth of his foolish affection; not that she needed any more indicators, after last night. “I must leave; I have pressing matters, I’m afraid.”

     “They’d better not include pressing your other wives,” she teased, grasping his hand and pulling it to her mouth, to kiss it.  “It’s a dangerous colleen, I am.”

     She could see that he was weakening, and lifted her face for his kiss. One thing led to another, and in a short space of time they were at it again, tangled in the silken bed sheets and ignoring the discreet knock at the door. 

     Afterward, he propped himself on an elbow, and examined the scratches on her forearm, his dark brows drawn together.  “How did this happen?”

     “I scraped my arm on a lattice, during my adventure in the Kasbah last night.  It’s a trifle, and nothing more than I deserve, for fleeing from you with all speed.”

     But he met her eyes very seriously. “This type of wound can be dangerous, Nonie— wood can cause a corruption of the flesh.  I will prepare a salve for it.” He bent and kissed her arm, for emphasis.

     With a smile, she leaned back into the pillows. “I thank you—you are a very handy sort of husband; and here I thought your only talent was grifting the bereaved.”

     His long fingers played with a curl that rested on her collarbone. “There will be a fruit tray outside the door—are you hungry?”

     “I am.”  She watched as he fetched it, thinking again about her theory.  Last night, they’d made love twice, and each time she was more certain of her rather surprising suspicion—that he was very inexperienced, for a man with multiple wives and concubines.  Not that she was an expert, by any means—she was one who avoided entanglements—but she had indulged herself, on occasion, and it seemed clear he was not as aware of certain niceties as one would expect.

     As she sat, cross-legged and nibbling on a date, she watched him dress, and considered this inexplicable phenomenon, and her tentative theory to explain it: the women were all for show, and in reality, he was some sort of ascetic.  This rather made sense; his rooms were bereft of any ornamentation, and he wore no jewelry, in direct contrast to the other men here—with their rings, and earrings, and such.

     She’d discarded her other theory—that he preferred another kind of sexual service to the old-fashioned one—because he gave no indication that he would welcome such attentions from her.  And she’d also been a bit surprised—truth to tell—that he had not used a French letter, or some other means to avoid pregnancy;  it had not occurred to her that she might wind up with a token of his affection, at the conclusion of this little adventure.  

     “Do you have any children?” she asked casually, lifting another date from the bowl.   

     “I do not,” he replied. “Do you?”

     “No.”  She amended, “At least, not as of last night.”

     He met her eyes, and there was a long moment of—something; whatever it was, itmade her feel as though part of her was standing and staring at the other part of her in stark disbelief.  She shook it off, and briskly changed the subject. “What am I to do, now that I am a respectable junior wife, and not a crazed prophetess?”

     He tilted his head slightly, and bent to pluck a fig from the tray. “You are free to continue on as a crazed prophetess; that was the entire point of becoming respectable.”

     “I may go about freely?” She tried to keep the edge of suspicion from her voice; she still felt that there was something here—something going on that she did not understand, and it made her uneasy.

     “Yes—although the Agha will wish you to identify the ship’s location as quickly as possible. I would like to suggest that you be brought to the harbor later today, so that everyone is assured that our marriage is not an attempt to undermine the operation.  But it would be best if you stayed inside, until then.”

     She eyed him, thinking this over. “I was hoping to see Jamie, to explain what’s happened, and why.”

     He nodded in understanding. “Very well; I will arrange for you to visit Jamie in the evening, after your return from the harbor.  Jamil can escort you to him, if you will dress as a servant.”

     This seemed a reasonable plan, and—more to the point—indicated he would not seek to constrain her movements. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”  With a small smile, she confessed, “I was a bit worried there was an ulterior motive to this wedding business, and you meant to lock me down.”

     “No,” he said immediately, his eyes meeting hers. “I seek only to protect you.”

     “Among other things,” she teased.

     “Among other things,” he agreed with a smile. “I will mix a salve for your arm, but then I must go.”

     After she dressed, he returned with a small vial, and they stood next to the window whilst he folded back her sleeve to expose the red and angry scratches on her arm.  With a slender application stick, he carefully smeared a small amount of the salve on them, and then wrapped a bandage around her arm. She was close enough to observe his long lashes and his mobile mouth, and found she didn’t want him to leave—not just yet. “Tahriz,” she whispered.

     His dark eyes met hers.  “I must go,” he repeated and put a palm up to her cheek. “I am sorry, Nonie.”

     “What is so important?” She knew she shouldn’t make her longing for him so obvious—she was not one to wear her heart on her sleeve—but she couldn’t seem to help herself.

     “I must protect my interests,” was the only answer he would give, and with a final caress, left her.

      Although she was positively itching to follow him—no doubt he was arranging for the next shipment of pearls—she would have to possess her soul in patience; others would watch his movements, and Jamie would let her know if there was a need to expedite the assignment.  She almost laughed aloud, thinking of Jamie’s shock when he heard the latest news.  He could not be blamed for thinking she’d taken an unnecessary risk, with this subterfuge marriage, but on the other hand, she was now in a better position to gather intelligence, and complete the assignment. That the mark seemed determined to give her as little intelligence as possible was a problem, but not an insurmountable one; he was smitten—she was certain of it—and it was very gratifying to know that she was the woman who had managed to infiltrate his self-imposed reserve. 

     I am going to save him from his fate, and convince him to mend his wicked ways, she thought with no small satisfaction. We would deal well together, and I’d love for nothing more than to have him close-to-hand, in my future travels.  After all, I am the wife of his bosom, now, and it’s only fitting.  

     How this was to be accomplished remained to be seen, but Nonie had full confidence in her own abilities, and in the strength of her faux-husband’s attraction to her. With a contented sigh, she closed her eyes and settled back into the silken pillows, considering different schemes by which she could extract the necromancer from this nest of vipers.