ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 22

 

     There were no fire trays and no peacock throne, this time; only the Dey, seated at his breakfast table on a shaded terrace, his thoughts unreadable, as he gazed upon Nonie with his hard, opaque eyes.  The necromancer had asked if she would give the Dey a debriefing about the events of the previous evening, and she was willing, because if the previous pattern held true, he would stay to conduct a séance afterward, which would free her up to meet with Jamie.  It was time to stir up some trouble amongst the warring factions, and it was an unholy shame that she couldn’t arrange matters so that they all killed each other outright—there was never a more deserving crew.

     Thus far, the necromancer and the Dey had held a discussion in Arabic whilst she waited patiently, and wondered what the governor’s reaction would be if she helped herself to a sweetmeat off the table.  The tenor of the conversation was rather grave, but not heated, and she had no idea of what they spoke.

     The Agha was absent, as he was overseeing the operation to recover the pearls from the bottom of the harbor.  Yet again, it seemed apparent that the sunken pearls were of little interest to the necromancer, which was a puzzle, since he should be intensely interested in the pearls—it was the whole reason he was the mark, for the love o’ Mike.   It was possible that he was somehow aware that the majority of the sunken pearls were fakes—in which case they had a serious breach of intelligence, as this was a very closely-guarded secret. But even in that case, why wouldn’t he expose this fact to the others? There was something here she did not understand, and the mark did not want her to understand; she had the uneasy feeling that the current conversation was one she would very much like to interpret.

     With an imperious gesture, the Dey beckoned her to approach, and Nonie dutifully stepped forward, her hands clasped nervously before her. “Last night—you showed where the ship rested in the harbor?”

     “I did.” She was tempted to give his deceased sister Nadia some credit, but then she remembered that Nadia was apparently not interested in the pearls, in the same way that the necromancer was not interested in the pearls.  It was all very strange.

     “The Agha seized you out of chambers—and without your husband’s permission?”

     “He did.” She wouldn’t mention that she was perfectly happy to be seized, so as to finally get this bloody assignment on the bloody road.  To be fair, she added, “Along with the one-eyed Frenchman.”

     The Dey leaned forward. “The two of them, they acted together?”

     “Well, yes; although they were quarreling about the pearls, and very unhappy with each other.”

     At this, the Dey flicked the necromancer a knowing glance.  I wonder what my pretend-husband is about, here, she thought.  I wish I knew my lines.

     “Speak, girl—what else was said by these men?”

     Nonie considered. “They were unhappy with my husband.”

     The Dey nodded, narrowing his eyes. “Yes; I understand that violence was offered.”

     “That is true,” she agreed in a solemn tone. “Violence was definitely offered.”

     The necromancer intervened to make a comment in Arabic, and the Dey shifted his brooding gaze to him.  Her husband then said to her, “I explained to the Dey that—had I not appeared—you feared an attempt would be made on your life.”

     She kept her gaze on his for a long moment, and then agreed in a neutral tone, “Yes, this is true.”

     The other two then had a conversation that seemed to involve the necromancer offering advice, and the Dey gravely acquiescing, as he turned up his hands in capitulation. I believe—Nonie thought, watching them—I believe my erstwhile husband is manipulating the situation in some way, and doesn’t want me to follow the conversation, which is not very sporting of him, I must say.

     “Tell me,” the Dey asked, leaning forward and lowering his voice, “Have you had any other premonitions of my death?” 

     She blinked.  “Which premonitions are those, sir?”

      With a scowl, he made an impatient gesture. “Come now, you must recall what you have said.  My horse, Admiral Nelson, the jackals who surround me—” he made another gesture toward the mark “—my necromancer tells me the import was clear, and that I must fear for my life.”

     “I—I suppose that is true,” Nonie conceded. “Or—mayhap you are being warned not to do anything that would provoke the British.”  

     But the Dey leaned back into his chair. “You would not understand what the messages mean,” he informed her almost kindly. “Your husband—he understands.”

     “He’s as gafty as the day is long,” she agreed a bit grimly.  “Gaftier, even.”

     With a frown of incomprehension, the other said in a brusque tone, “What is that? You must learn to speak more clearly.”

     “I should learn Arabic, I should.  The three of us could hold long and enlightening conversations.” 

     Oblivious to the irony in her tone, the governor nodded with dour approval.  “Yes. My necromancer is fortunate that he has taken such a dutiful wife.”

     “From the moment I wake up,” she agreed. It had come to her attention that her husband awoke with a burning desire for sex, first thing in the morning, to which she had no problem submitting, if not downright encouraging.

     Swiftly, the necromancer intervened, and said in English, “If she comes to harm by the Frenchman, we will have no choice but to retaliate—indeed, we have already allowed him to levy insult without repercussion.”

      “Yes,” agreed the Dey, steepling his hands, and staring at her with his brooding eyes.  “I will see to it that he is warned—such high-handedness will not be tolerated.  I am ruler, here.”

     Apparently satisfied, the necromancer bowed. “With your permission, I will see her out.”

     The Dey nodded, and made a negligent gesture with his fingers, whilst the necromancer turned to escort Nonie out from the terrace, and into the adjacent hallway. 

     As they exited past the guards, Nonie eyed her companion sidelong. “What are you about, my friend?”

     But he was unperturbed, as he walked beside her.  “Isn’t it obvious?  I cannot allow another situation like the one last night, where you are without protectors. It is best if the Dey takes a personal interest in your safety.” 

     “And his own, apparently—what with my premonitions of death and destruction.”

     He tilted his head slightly. “It is important that he lives.”

     This seemed inarguable, at least from his point of view. “Of course it is, otherwise your easy days of grifting will be behind you, and you’d be forced to find an honest way to earn your bread.”

     “Very true.”

     He gave her a small smile, which warmed her heart, but did not dissuade her from her suspicions. “I have that feeling I have—the one where I’m wondering if you are trying to lock me down, again.”

     He thought about how to reply, as they approached the main entrance to the palace.  “You must know I am concerned—especially after last night.  Your safety is of paramount importance.”

     “I have to do my job, Tahriz—remember? You were not going to make me choose.”

     “No.” He paused to face her, crossing his arms, and with his head bent.  “Will you be careful? Will you take no chances?”

     Touched, she laid a hand on his arm. “You needn’t worry; I am very good at what I do.”

     But this did not seem to reassure him, and the expression in his eyes remained grave, as he signaled to the slaves to bring the sedan chair around.  “I have no doubt of it.”