ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

  The Barbary Mark

Chapter 21

 

     With an ironic nod to the necromancer, Jamie turned and slipped back through the curtain, no doubt to descend out the window by way of rope—although he was very competent at scaling walls, and often didn’t need a rope; it all depended on the composition of the wall.

     Without comment, the necromancer moved over to the wardrobe, and began to remove his djellaba whilst Nonie watched with bemusement; it was as though they were an ordinary married couple—if you didn’t count the necromancing, and the stealthy visitors—and it was a very strange feeling for her.

     Nonie had already noted that he was very tidy in his habits, which did not match her own inclination, which was to leave things strewn about until they piled up so high that something finally had to be done.  It is just as well—she told herself firmly—that they would not abide together for the long term; she would drive him mad. 

    “Thank you for letting me speak with Jamie, Tahriz; we were supposed to meet tonight, and when the Agha interrupted our plans, he was a bit worried.”

     But it seemed he was unwilling to discuss Jamie, instead saying only, “I will call a servant to bring hot water. I must visit my stillroom, but I will return within the hour.”

     There was a constraint in his voice—subtle, but she was alive to it.  He didn’t like the meeting with Jamie, and didn’t like the life she led—she knew he definitely didn’t like the fact he would have been too late to save her tonight, if she hadn’t saved herself.  In a strange way, she could sympathize with him, because she felt the same way; it was as though her carefully ordered world had been turned upside down, and everything that used to be a priority suddenly was not.  “And you’ll be leaving me here, in my traumatized state?  Is that very husbandly, I ask you?” She walked up behind him, and put her arms around his waist, leaning her cheek against his back.

     He clasped her hands and she could feel his chest rise and fall, as he drew a breath. “Can I leave you to your bath? I have to think about what must be done.”

     Making a sound of disappointment, she moved her fingers gently on his chest, and noted that he didn’t try to disengage from her embrace.   “I will tell you what must be done, you should push me down into the bed, and work your magic; that’s what must be done.”

     “Nonie—”

     “You won’t wear me out, you know—it’s resilient, I am.” There was a pause, and she could sense he was tempted. “Namrata,” she added, tentatively.

     But this was a misstep, and she could feel the tension return to his body, as he turned to her in alarm. “You mustn’t say,” he warned. “Please; it is important.”

     “Then pretend I didn’t—I’ve no clue what it means, anyway, and you should be kinder to me, considering I almost drowned.”

     He ran his fingers through her thick curls, tugging gently so that her head tilted back, her face raised to his. “I would like to be kinder; I would like—I would like to see you away from all this, so that you could start anew.”

     His gaze held hers, and she could feel the honest emotion crackling between them like the lightning weapon—but her first instinct was to shy away from it. “You can’t,” she replied, trying not to sound defensive.  “I have my orders, and I cannot walk away, even for you.”  She paused, trying to control the unfamiliar emotions that were roiling within her breast. “Don’t make me choose.”

     He brought his head forward so that his forehead rested on hers. “No—forgive me. I don’t know if I can endure many more evenings like this one; when I thought—”

     In a panic, she only knew that she could not allow him to continue.  “I can’t be honest with you—I wouldn’t know how.” Irritated, she ducked her head into his chest. “So what’s it going to be? Are you staying or leaving?”

    “Staying,” he decided, and bent to lift her in his arms.

     She kissed his neck as he carried her to the bed, immeasurably relieved that he hadn’t lost all patience with her. “I haven’t washed.”  Aside from being tidy, he was also very cleanly, and there was no question that her hair smelled of sea salt.

     “Not at all necessary; I am sorry I upset you.” He lowered her onto the bed and bent to kiss her, his fingers working on the strings of her kaftan.

     She wound her arms around his neck, feeling a bit ashamed about her outburst. “No; I’m the one who’s sorry, Tahriz—” she tried to think about how to explain everything to him, but apparently he wasn’t interested, and again, his lovemaking was a delicious combination of tenderness mixed with lust—they were becoming familiar, one with the other, and as a result the touches were more certain, the surrendering more complete.  I trust him, she realized in a haze; at least in this, and this is wonderful

     Afterward, she lay in his arms, drowsy and content—although she wouldn’t have minded that bath, truth to tell—and they didn’t speak, but gently caressed each other, the diffuse light from the curtained window the only illumination. She realized that he hadn’t lit the candle beside the bed; in fact, he’d never lit another fire—not after she’d mentioned, that first night, that she didn’t like looking into the fire.

     There was an almost unbearable, tightening sensation beneath her breast, and turning so that her cheek rested on his bicep, she looked away from him, into the darkness. “I was born in New Ross—County Wexford.  There was a big battle there—it was during the Irish Rebellion.  I was seven, at the time.”

     She waited to see if he would make a response, or ask a question, but he didn’t—instead he seemed to be intently listening, rather like the priest in a confessional.

     “There was a big battle there—in New Ross.”   After a pause, she plunged on.  “It was a terrible time, and the English—the English were brutal beasts.  They wanted to send a message to the rebels, and so many of our town people were herded into a barn, in Scullabogue.”  She paused. “Have you heard this tale?”

     “No,” he said.

     Of course he hadn’t, she thought; it was half a world away. She closed her eyes. “The English set the barn on fire, and massacred everyone.” 

     He made a small sound of sympathy, and she added in a rush, “I was inside—inside the barn with my mother and my brothers and sisters—all of us so crowded, and so afraid. My father—my father had already been killed in the battle, and it was so hard to believe that he was gone—he was gone forever.  I was the youngest of seven—a skinny little thing—and my mother thought I could slip through a crack in the slats, if no one was looking—but I was so afraid; I could see that she was afraid, and that frightened me—I didn’t want to go outside alone. So she told me to stop crying, and yanked hard on my hair, and—and pushed me, until I squeezed though.” There was another pause. “Sometimes I wake up at night, and I fancy that I can still hear everyone screamin’.”

     His arm tightened around her as she wiped tears away with the back of her hand. “You are not to tell anyone of this,” she instructed.

     “No,” he agreed.  There was a silence, for a moment. “Who is Tanny?”

     “Tanny?” It was not the question she was expecting, after such a revelation.

     “Your voice changes, when you say her name.”

     All right, she thought; we’ll speak of Tanny, too. “Tanny was Miss Tannerby. She was the village school teacher—a very refined Englishwoman, who could spout out Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. She was a spinster, and took in the miscellaneous orphans who were left over after the massacre—a dozen of us—and managed it, somehow. There were times when she had to beg in the streets, but she’d never allow us to.”

     “Mr. O’Hay was one.”

     “Yes, Jamie was another stray.” 

     The rough ground now behind her, Nonie continued with more confidence, “When Jamie and I were teenagers—angry teenagers, I suppose you could say—we started participating in the pockets of rebellion that still existed in the county. I think we were more bent on destruction than inspired by patriotism, if the truth be told. Anyway, our exploits were such that when I was arrested one fine day, a dour Englishman came to visit me in gaol, offering payment, if I would work for the Home Office.” She paused. “I never caught his name, but I said some very rude things to him.  With hindsight, I should have taken the money, but at the time I was filled with righteous principles.”

     “What changed?”

     She sighed. “Tanny died. Well; she was killed—by two drunken Irish louts, who couldn’t see past the fact she was English, and pushed her down for sport.  Anyway, I decided there was no point to anything, and I may as well make some money, whilst the world burned. So I grabbed Jamie, and we reported for duty.”  She twined her fingers in his, and warned, “There’s a lot, in between then and now, but that’s all I’m going to tell you, so don’t be pestering me.”

     “All right.” 

     He lifted his other hand, and began stroking her salty hair, whilst she let out a long breath she hadn’t realized that she was holding.  “Your turn,” she prompted.

    “I love you.”

     She blinked. “That’s it?”

     “That’s it.”

      Unable to contain her smile at this confession, she teased, “You are trying to distract me from insisting on hearing your story—don’t think I am not wise to you.”

     “Yes,” he admitted. “But I do love you.”

     Again, she sighed. “Then you’ll be tested, my friend.”

 

 

.