ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 19

 

     “Come along,” the Agha urged impatiently. “There is little time.”

      I imagine he means there is little time before the Dey, or my husband—or both—makes an appearance to express their extreme displeasure at this high-handedness, thought Nonie. It is interesting that the Agha is willing to indulge the Frenchman in this—although it is possible he is willing to make any alliance, if he thinks it will bring discredit to the necromancer. 

     The party was making its way down one of the two jetties that had been built out into the Bay of Algiers, the large rocks piled high to provide an artificial harbor between. As she trudged along—ruining her poor sandals on the rough surface—Nonie looked about her with interest, being as how she hadn’t had a clear view on the night she’d arrived.  Ships of various sizes were anchored in the harbor, and the jetty itself was illuminated with the occasional torch, the flames dancing madly in the persistent wind that blew off the water. Darkness was falling, and the ancient city of Algiers rose up from the shore, with newly-lit torches and lanterns illuminating the Kasbah against the coming night.  

     Ahead of her strode Le Capitaine and the Agha—both their backs rigid with wariness—and a third man had fallen into step beside her, as they made their way along the narrow pathway atop the rocks. Like the Frenchman, he was dressed in European clothes, and she surmised he was on his staff, although she couldn’t be certain of his nationality—a ship’s officer of some sort, she guessed.  Not a captain; a captain would not allow himself to be ignored by the other two.

     She strained to listen to the conversation between the two men in front of them—it was low-voiced, and intense—but gave up, as the wind carried away any tantalizing snatches of the French they spoke.  Silently, she sized up the man walking beside her, and decided she needed to know more.  To this end, she asked in a small voice, “Do you think they mean to do me harm?”

     “Not if you cooperate.”

     English, she thought in surprise.  Here’s a wrinkle—nothing like a despicable turncoat, to add to the mix.  “Sir,” she ventured. “You are British; please, I beg of you—”

     “Quiet,” he rebuked her in a sharp tone.  “And do as you’re told.”

      Stupid sassanach, she thought, subsiding into silence. It would be such a terrible shame, if you were to take a tumble into the choppy water; it might take the starch out of your stupid cravat.

     The two men before them paused and turned to her, standing close so that she could hear over the wind that whipped around them. The Frenchman asked, “The night you were rescued—do you remember where the Dutch ship was, when it sank?”

     Nonie gazed out uncertainly toward the darkening sea, clinging to the ends of her veil so that her head dress did not fly off.  After hesitating, she raised an arm to indicate, “Off the far end, and over to the left a bit. I think that’s the place; it was very dark, of course—and stormy.” Truly, when she looked at it from this vantage point, she had turned quite the trick; despite the removal of her corset, it was no easy thing to swim in skirts, under such conditions.  The Home Office didn’t pay her anywhere near enough.

     “How large a vessel?” The Englishman beside her asked. “How many masts?”

     She pretended to consider this, even though she could have spared everyone the trouble and reported that it was a 28-gun frigate that had been severely battered by action, and then stripped of its cannons with the exception of four portside nine-pounders, which had been left to sink it, so that it settled underwater on its side. “Three masts, I think; two large and one at the back, that was smaller.”  Her eyes wide with remembered distress, she added, “I hope none of the sailors drowned.”   Unlikely; unless she very much missed her guess, both Droughm and Captain Spoor had managed to find a tavern or a brothel—or both—in short order.

     Viewing the area with narrowed eyes, the Englishman shook his head. “It makes no sense.  Why was the vessel so close to the jetty that it ran aground? Were they landing?”

     “There was a great deal of drinking,” Nonie offered. Which was true, to an extent—it was a time-honored tradition to toast the launch of a new assignment.

     “Perhaps the Dutch captain was making a delivery to the Dey, Mr. Peyton.”  The Frenchman allowed the sarcastic question to linger in the air, as he turned to face the Agha in an accusatory manner.

    “Monsieur le capitaine, you are laboring under a misapprehension,” the Agha insisted, his color rising.  “I can promise you there was no such intent—”

     “The Dey is double-dealing with the wrong people,” the Frenchman interrupted in a voice that was all the more sinister for its softness. He turned, and addressed the Englishman.  “Mr. Peyton, would it be possible to explore the cargo hold at this depth?”

     Peyton took an assessing look at the area. “Yes—the depth along the shelf is perhaps thirty feet, only.  So either the masts are broken, or the ship lies on its side.”

     This was true, more or less, and Nonie was impressed, despite herself. Apparently Mr. Peyton was an experienced seaman, and only served as a traitor in his spare time.

     “We have divers here—very adept. They will recover the pearls,” the Agha firmly pronounced, “—and this misunderstanding will be at an end.”

     “We shall see,” said Le Capitaine.  He then turned to Peyton. “Try to get an exact location from her; the Agha and I must have a private discussion.”  After holding Peyton’s gaze for a significant moment, he then turned with the other man to retrace their steps down the pathway, the Agha wasting no time in launching into an impassioned defense in French.

    Fancy that, thought Nonie, watching them walk away; apparently, I’m slated to be murdered by our friend Mr. Peyton.  Comes from knowing too much about Napoleon’s doings, it does—wouldn’t they be surprised, if they found out I knew more about it than the three of them put together.

      Dispassionately, she considered releasing her blade from its hiding place in her hem, but then discarded the thought; she needed to stay in the arena for the foreseeable future, and a stab wound could not be explained away, were it discovered—and she could not be certain it would not be discovered, as she was not familiar with the tides in the area.

     “Come here to the edge,” Peyton directed her with an impatient gesture. “Try to show me exactly where you think the ship is.”

     “Yes, sir,” she responded nervously, and—carefully balancing on the rocks—followed him to the edge, losing her footing for a moment, so that she fell back on her hands, and managed to come back up clutching a good-sized rock.  “Oh,” she exclaimed in a startled tone. “Isn’t that the mast, sticking up over there?”

     Surprised, he followed her gesture, and as his head was turned, she clouted him on the temple where the skull was most vulnerable, and watched him slump down in a heap. Dispassionately, she kicked him with one foot, and then the other, so that he rolled off the rocks and into the water, the blood flowing freely, as it always did from a head wound.  She then scrambled along the shoulder of the jetty back toward the shore, keeping low, and not certain how much time she had before someone would come looking for the despicable Mr. Peyton—hopefully he would drown, although she could not stay to be certain; she had some eavesdropping to do.

     Keeping her kaftan bunched up in a hand, she swiftly leapt from rock to rock, until she caught up to the place where the two men walked along, deep in conversation. Nonie decided she would very much like to hear what it was they said, and carefully scuttled along the rocks—she didn’t dare lift her head—until she could hear snatches of their conversation.

     “. . . he is playing the both of us for fools—do not doubt that this is his doing.  He has taken the girl to wife. . . ”

     But the Frenchman was not sympathetic. “How do I know this? You seek to have me take out your rival, but all I see is. . .”

     The wind carried the words away, and Nonie crept as close as she dared.

     “. . . more problems, and you will reap . . . .”

     Suddenly, the Agha interrupted with a startled exclamation. “He approaches; be wary—he is not one to be trifled with.”

     “Come; I am not so credulous. . . ”

     Oh-oh, Nonie thought, her face pressed against the roughened rock.  If I am not mistaken, my better half has arrived to raise a ruckus on my behalf—which is very sweet of him, although it would have been too little, too late. 

     On the horns of a dilemma, she considered how best to proceed—it might be best, all things considered, to maintain the fiction that she’d drowned.  She’d succeeded in leading the enemy to the sunken treasure trove, and the other aspects of her assignment could be more easily completed if she were not constrained to the Dey’s palace, but able to lurk about the city as a free agent. On the other hand, the mark would be very unhappy, poor man, and there’d be no more blissful lovemaking sessions. After only a moment’s debate, she decided she was a hopeless romantic, and began to crawl upward toward the pathway. 

     There was no mistaking that the necromancer was angry, and she had no problem hearing him in the wind, when he addressed the other two.  “What is the meaning of this? I understand you seized my wife out of my chambers.”

     “Be easy,” the Agha replied, a thread of scorn underlying his response. “She was not seized; Le Capitaine wished to learn what she knew of the sunken ship. . . ” The man’s voice trailed off as he looked down the jetty, and suddenly realized that there was no one to be seen.

     “Where is she?” The rough edge to the necromancer’s voice overrode all other considerations, and with a sigh, Nonie gathered up her hem, and made ready to return to her gilded cage.

     “Most unfortunate,” said the Frenchman, in a tone that conveyed anything but sympathy. “I fear she has met with an accident.”

     Before her husband could react to this bit of bad news, Nonie clambered up the edge of the jetty, clumsy in her unwieldy garment.  “Ho, there,” she called out to the startled men. “I’ll be needing some assistance.”

     The necromancer strode over to her, and helped her onto the pathway. “Are you injured?”

     Standing upright, she brushed off her hands, which were a bit raw from the contact with the rocks. “No, sir; although Mr. Peyton fell and hit his head—I was unable to pull him up, by myself.”

     But the Frenchman did not go to his henchman’s assistance; instead, he angrily moved forward with a hand out toward Nonie, as though seeking to wrest her away from the necromancer.

     What happened next defied explanation; suddenly, there was a loud, crackling sound, and what could only be described as lightning seemed to emanate from the necromancer’s outstretched hand. With a cry, the Frenchman fell to the ground, writhing, and the Agha stepped back, horrified.

     “Mother a’ mercy,” breathed Nonie, staring in stark disbelief.

     “You will not touch my wife,” the necromancer said to the panting man on the ground. Then, he held out a hand to Nonie. “Come, we will go back.”