ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 20

 

     After seeing to it that Nonie was seated beside him in the sedan chair, the necromancer signaled to the slaves to lift the poles, and they commenced the journey up the hill, back to the Dey’s palace. 

     Aware that he was unhappy with her, she placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you.”

     He did not look at her, but she could see the contours of his profile in the flickering light—his jaw rigid, and his shoulders tense.  “What were you about, Nonie?” 

     She couldn’t very well explain to him that she needed the pearls—most of them fakes—to sail with Le Capitaine so that Jamie could track where they went.  Instead, she protested, “Pray don’t blame me for this little dust-up; those two jackanapes brought me here without so much as a by-your-leave.  Ask Fatima, she’ll vouch for me.”

     “Do you know who the Frenchman is?”

     “I do.”  She offered nothing further.

     After a moment, he turned to her, and placed his own hand on hers.  “Forgive me; I have no right to reprimand you.”

     Grateful that he was getting over his scare—which was what lay at the heart of his foul mood—she teased gently, “We’ll have an agreement, instead; I’ll allow you to reprimand me, if you’ll allow me to reprimand you. Not in bed, though.”

     But he was not to be teased, and lifted his face to hers to say with quiet intensity, “You must be careful; these are dangerous people.”

     This, of course, was nothing she didn’t know, and once again she wondered why he was not cooperating with the aforementioned dangerous people—it all made little sense. As she couldn’t raise these matters with him, however, she replied in a light tone, “Ah—but I’m a dangerous colleen, Tahriz.” For a moment, she dwelt fondly on the memory of the Frenchman’s missing eye.

     Thus prompted, he asked, “What happened to the other man?”

     “I coshed him,” she admitted readily. “But in my defense, he was winding up to drown me.”

     He bent his head forward, and brushed his thumb across the back of her hand in what was now becoming a familiar gesture. “You take such risks.”

     “As do you.”  She watched him, thinking about how they were both dancing around the truth, because neither one of them could be too forthright with the other without ruining their respective schemes.  It is a shame we are on opposing sides, she thought; we would make a formidable pairing.

     “Do you ever consider—do you ever consider not doing what it is you do, anymore?”

     They were wandering into that-which-must-not-be-spoken-of, but she was loath to put a halt to this fine, semi-honest discussion. “Sometimes.  But then Napoleon decides to march again, and all choices are taken away from me.”

     Choosing his words carefully, he persisted, “There are always choices; there are always opportunities to begin anew.”

     Surely, he couldn’t be suggesting that she turn coat, and throw in her lot with Napoleon’s forces?  Almost immediately, she discarded the thought; he would know better, and besides, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he hated this place; hated these people and what they did—although it made little sense, as here he was, in the thick of it.  Perhaps he was operating under some compulsion—he was being blackmailed, or threatened in some way. This actually made more sense than believing that he was willingly serving the forces of evil, and then grifting the Dey on the side, for good measure. 

     With an effort, she looked away, and took firm hold of herself; she needed to be clear-headed when it came to him, and to stop grasping at straws in the forlorn hope that it would all turn out well, somehow.  To this end, she changed the subject. “What was that you brought down on him? It looked like lightning.”

     “Very similar,” was his only response.

     She smiled. “Remind me never to cross you, my friend.”

     But this only triggered another serious response from him, as he turned to say with all sincerity, “I would never harm you—never.  You must believe me.”

     With a wry mouth, she was compelled to point out, “Yet you have coshed me out twice, thus far—and on very short acquaintance, I might add.”

     With quiet intensity, he insisted, “Believe me, I am only trying to protect you, Nonie.”

     For the second time, she pointed out, “I believe I am well-able to protect myself, Tahriz.”

     For a long moment, he held her eyes with his, and she thought, there is something here that I don’t understand—some motivation other than greed, or ambition.  But why wouldn’t he confess it?  He is a good man—it may sound foolish, after all that has happened, but he is a good man; I know it down to my bones. 

     She hovered on the edge of confronting him, but drew back; it was entirely possible he was exactly what he seemed, and she was going to destroy the assignment with her inability to control what she said around him—it was past time to remember why she was here, and how important it was. 

     Breaking off eye contact, she gazed out the window for a few moments, as the sedan chair lumbered its way up the hill.  “And how was the Dey’s mother, if I may be asking?”

     In a grave voice that nevertheless held an underlying trace of humor, he replied, “She was in a mood to talk.”

     “That is excellent news; what sort of advice does she give him?” She had little doubt he was using his influence with the Dey against the Agha; in the same way that the Agha was trying to influence the Frenchman against him.  It was always the way of it—in palaces, or other places where men vied for power; it was how these pesky wars kept breaking out.

     He tilted his head, considering his response. “His mother wants only what is best for him.”

     “Then she was a—is a—a good mother.” Despite herself, her voice faltered, and she ducked her chin to recover her poise.

     He placed a hand gentle hand on her arm, and squeezed. “You have lost your own mother?”

     The sympathy in his voice was nearly her undoing, but with her gaze focused on the floor, she managed to reply in a level tone, “I’d rather not speak of it, just now.”

     There was a pause. “Was it a fire?”

     “Stop it,” she snapped, and then was horrified by her loss of composure. “Oh—oh, I am sorry, Tahriz—”

     “No matter,” he responded lightly, his hand moving down to hold hers in a firm clasp. “I believe we have an agreement to reprimand, whenever it is necessary.”

     In the ensuing silence, she gazed out the window, and saw that they were nearing the palace.  “Do you think you would ever want to live somewhere else?”  So much for her resolve to mind what she said around him.

     He chose his words carefully. “I think the future is very uncertain.”

     Which means no, she thought, and was embarrassed that she had asked him such a question—like a lovelorn lass with more hair than wit, as Tanny used to say.

     His hand tightened on hers. “You are very dear to me.”

     Quirking her mouth, she turned to him. “You needn’t throw me a sop, my friend.”

     “It is not a sop—it is the truth.”

     But not dear enough, she admitted a bit sadly, and then chastised herself for putting on such a maudlin display. He was right; the future was very uncertain, and she shouldn’t be looking for happily-ever-after.  Meanwhile, she had an assignment to complete.

     Upon arriving at their rooms, one of his guards—Jamil, the one who’d married them—moved his head slightly, and Tahriz stepped aside to confer with him in low tones. I hope there are no more crises tonight, thought Nonie, watching, and trying to gauge his reaction to the report. I am still a bit peaky from my brush with smallpox, not to mention my adventures on the jetty.

     Upon returning to her side, Tahriz bent his head for a moment, considering, and then said, “I believe Mr. O’Hay hides within. Would you like to speak with him?”

     Smiling in appreciation, she nodded. “If you don’t mind.”  This was impressive; Jamie was usually very good at lurking about undetected. Poor Jamie—small wonder he was here; he must be wondering what had happened, after Ibram had given him the message that she was off to the harbor, with two villains in tow.  

     With a grave expression, her companion searched her face. “I would like to watch at a distance, if I may.”

     “There is no need for concern,” she said gently. “He is like a brother to me—nothing more.”

     His expression softening, he admitted, “I’d rather you weren’t out of my sight. Not after what happened.”

     She nodded. “Right, then. Don’t bring down the lightning on him, please.”

      “Don’t give me reason.”  She had the distinct impression he was only half-joking.

     They entered, and the necromancer shut the door, standing with his back to it.  Nonie walked forward and said softly in Gaelic, “Are you here Jamie? Apparently, you’ve been twigged, but the mark doesn’t mind if we speak.”

     With a twitch of a curtain, Jamie stepped forward, his wary glance noting the necromancer’s position.  “Hell, I knew it; I think he has some sort of tripping mechanism—threads, maybe.”

     “He’s very crafty; we’d do well not to underestimate him.”

     Turning a shoulder to the silent figure at the door, Jamie drew her over toward the window, and assessed her with his brows drawn together. “What’s happened—you look like something the cat dragged in.”

     “Then let me sit down—Lord, I’ve earned it. I showed those nodcocks where the ship went down.  I practically had to take them by the hand and spoon-feed them, but in any event, it is done, so keep an eye out, and be ready to disembark from this miserable place.”

     His gaze flicked with irony to the watching necromancer. “You don’t seem to be suffering, if I may say so.”

     She tossed her head and said tartly, “None of your business, Jamie O’Hay.”

     He lowered his chin to look into her eyes. “You are telling him far too much, Nonie.”

     Stung, she defended, “I am telling him nothing—instead I am finding out, bit by bit, that he seems to know everything, all on his own.” 

     “Obviously, he can’t know everything,” Jamie emphasized. “Think on it, Nonie.”

     But she had to disagree.  “You mustn’t make that assumption—I’ve been wrong at every turn, doing just that. I think instead there is something else at play, here; otherwise—you’re right—he would be behaving in an altogether different way.  We know that he’s Napoleon’s point man in the jeune filles operation, yet he’s not even pretending to cooperate with Le Capitaine, who is Napoleon’s agent, here. It makes no sense.

     Jamie shrugged. “He’s double-crossing Napoleon, then—like the Saragossa mark—and you’d best hope he doesn’t meet the same nasty fate.”

     But once again, Nonie felt compelled to disagree. “I don’t think so, Jamie—why would he be so openly hostile, then?  He laid out Le Capitaine tonight, as a matter of fact—and a finer piece of weaponry I have never seen; it looked like controlled lightning, or something.”

     Jamie—who was always interested in the latest weaponry—allowed himself to be distracted.  “Is that so? If that’s the case, we’d best work on neutralizing him, Nonie; we don’t know what he’s about.”

     But Nonie warned, “You’ll take no action without my say-so, Jamie O’Hay.” 

     With a nod of his head, Jamie—bless him—did not argue, and she entertained a small qualm, hoping that her lovelorn foolishness would not end up endangering the both of them. 

     “We go forward, then?  Even though the mark is not behaving like a proper mark?”

     “We do,” she agreed. “And despite everything, it is all working out perfectly—the Agha and Le Capitaine were observed openly quarreling this night, and the Dey will not be happy to hear that his red-headed prophetess was slated to be dumped in the drink.”

     Jamie raised his brows in amused surprise.  “Someone tried to take you out? Who, and where is what’s left of him?”

     She smiled at the memory. “The good Capitaine tried to get his cohort to drown me, although it didn’t work out very well for the poor man.  He’s since disappeared.” 

     With another glance at the necromancer, Jamie hesitated, then asked, “Are you sure he’s not the one who was behind it?”

     “Completely. He lost his composure—which doesn’t happen easily, I assure you—and brought down the lightning.”  She paused, then added, “The cohort was an Englishman named Peyton; you should alert the fishmongers, and see if anyone knows anything of him—see what his connections are.”

     Jamie nodded. “Any action needed?  Ibram said we were to make a visit tonight, but I suppose now we’ll need to reschedule.”

     “Yes—tomorrow, instead. Let’s stir the pot to the boiling point, after the pearls are recovered. I’ll meet you at the rooftop.”

     “Don’t tell the mark,” he teased.

     “Not funny—but we would do well to assume he knows everything.  He even knows of your meetings with—” she caught herself “—the female who must not be named.”

     Emotion flared in his eyes, and Jamie spoke in a low tone, his voice intent. “Nonie—look, Nonie, I’ve been talking it over with that female—”

      Exasperated, she chided, “Lord, Jamie; who’s being indiscreet now?”

     “She thinks she may be able to convince him to set her aside.”

     Nonie stared at him in disbelief. “She can’t leave with you, Jamie—are you utterly daft?”

     “Of course not,” he agreed impatiently. “But I thought perhaps you could manage it, when it’s your turn to leave. You could take her to England with you.”

     Her first reaction was to be outraged on her faux-husband’s behalf. “I’ll not do anything behind the mark’s back.”

     “Come now, Nonie—the way this is unfolding, he probably won’t survive anyway—”

    Furious, she retorted, “Jamie O’Hay, I swear I will knock you down.”  From the corner of her eye, she could see the necromancer straighten up, alert, and so she endeavored to compose herself. 

     “I’m sorry,” Jamie said immediately. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

     Taking a breath to recover her equilibrium, Nonie admitted, “No—no; you are right, and I’ve thought the same thing myself, believe me. I’ve put out some feelers to him, but he does not seem inclined to turn from his chosen path, which is truly a shame, as I am very fond of him—but there is no room for fond attachments, in this business.” She gave him a significant look.

     “I’ll make room for this one,” he disagreed in a stubborn tone. “One way or another.”

     “All right,” she temporized, rather surprised he was so resolute, and firmly quashing a pang of envy. “I’ll see what can be done, then.”