ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 24

 

     “You mustn’t spy on me.”

     “You are always spying on me,” the necromancer pointed out fairly.

     “Don’t be reasonable; I am out-of-reason cross.”  He was applying a salve to her sun- burnt face, and she was being short with him, partly because it was so very nice to have someone take such good care of her; it created mixed emotions within her breast.

     He finished, and wiped his hands on a cloth.  “Try to keep a thin layer over your face for a day or two, and stay out of the sun.”

     “This is not my first sun-burn, I assure you.”

     His gaze rested on her fair face, and his expression softened. “No—nor will it be your last, but you must be careful; with your skin, this climate can do a lot of damage.”

     “I don’t intend to stay in this miserable climate a moment longer than necessary.”

      He made no reply, but stoppered the salve, and set it on the tray. 

      “I’m sorry,” she offered quietly, her defiance at an end.  “I keep looking for a way through this, and I can’t find one.”

     “I understand,” he replied, his tone a bit grave. “I feel the same way.”

     This wasn’t exactly the response she looked for, and it prompted her to say, “It’s not that I want to carry you away, to abide in a snug cottage—I don’t. But I’d like to think I’ll be seeing you again—and I don’t mean visiting you when you’re in prison for war crimes.”

     He lifted his head, to gaze out the window. “I can make no promises.”

     This unpalatable response made her study him for a moment, perplexed. That he loved her she had no doubt—she could feel it in every touch, every glance. “Why do you do what you do?  I’ve known more than my share of the most dedicated blackguards, and you are not cut from the same cloth—you’ll never convince me of it. Do they have some hold over you? Is it your family?”

      As was his wont, he ignored the question, and countered with his own.  “What can I do to convince you to spare Le Capitaine from any further attacks?”

     She blinked. “I’d no idea you were such fast friends. It certainly didn’t seem so, when you struck him down.”

     He couldn’t resist a small smile, and she couldn’t resist smiling back—he had a lovely smile, he did—all the more so because it was rarely bestowed. “No,” he admitted with an ironic tilt of his head.  “We are not friends. But you mustn’t kill him, nonetheless.”

     “Tahriz,” she said gently. “It is what I do.”  Almost immediately she wished she hadn’t said it; but there was something about him that made her want to bare her soul, and she wasn’t certain he knew.

     He didn’t seem shocked, so perhaps he was already aware.  Instead he suggested in a mild tone, “Perhaps you could do something else.”

     “I could run a flower cart,” she mused, trying to tease her way out of this conversation that she should never be having with a mark, for the love o’ Mike.  “Or sell pearls—I know where I can lay hands on a fine inventory.”

     “You are so clever, and so brave,” he continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “You have so much more to offer.”

     Her brows knit, she stared at him for a moment, convinced that he was sincere. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the mark—who was working hand over fist to help Napoleon—would try to convince her to find another line of work.  It was a surprise, however, that someone as clever as he was would make such a ridiculous attempt.

    “I promise I won’t kill you,” she compromised.

     He turned aside with a smile. “I fear you will indeed be the death of me.”  

     She watched him walk over to the carafe of water that sat on the table, and asked, “Where were you today, whilst I was misbehaving?”

     “At the harbor.” He made a gesture, offering her water, and she walked over to join him, as he poured them each a goblet.

     He revealed nothing more, and she prodded, “I hear they pulled up the pearls from their watery grave.”

     “I heard the same.” Taking her elbow in his hand, he saw her seated on the window bench before he sat beside her—she noted he seemed weary; the fine lines around his dark eyes were more pronounced.

     Unable to resist, she observed, “You don’t seem very interested in the rescue operation.”

     His eyes rested on hers for a moment. “Should I be?”

     “You could at least make a push to filch me a few strands of pearls—it hardly seems fair.”

     Lifting a hand, he ran a gentle finger along her jaw.  “Next to your skin, even the finest pearls are dim imposters.” The words were completely sincere.

     For a moment she couldn’t find her voice. “Oh—oh, Tahriz; I am undone.  That was a fine compliment—perhaps you’d care to see a bit more of my skin?  I can lie down, if that would help.”

     Smiling at the half-serious invitation, he demurred, “I expect to be summoned, I’m afraid.” His gaze rested on hers thoughtfully.  “The French are furious; they have demanded reassurances, and the alliance is very precarious.”

     Her clear eyes wide, she shrugged her shoulders.  “There is no honor among thieves, I’m afraid—no matter what everyone says.”  If he thought she was moonbit enough to confess her assignment to him, he was on a fool’s errand; she may have opened her budget to him about her past, but business was business. Anyways, it was not as though he couldn’t guess for himself that she was here to stir up trouble between these two reluctant allies; he was no fool. 

     Eyes gleaming, she glanced at him from over the rim of her glass. “I knocked your fellow down a ladder, did he say?”

     Smiling, he shook his head. “No—Jamil is a gentleman.”

     She made a wry mouth. “I owe him an apology; he whisked me from a tight corner.”

      With a fingertip, he gently traced her chapped lips. “Jamil was there to make certain that the Frenchman made no other attempt to harm you.”

     She couldn’t help but laugh. “That is ironic. How was the poor man to know I would turn the tables, and then kick him down the ladder, for good measure?”

      “Certainly a surprising turnabout,” he offered gravely, a light of humor lurking in his eyes.  Delighted, she reflected that she had transformed this rather staid man into one with a finely-tuned sense of humor. Not to mention a finely-tuned desire for bed sport—she could see that he was regretting the lack of time, under the current circumstances. She’d also noted that he hadn’t swallowed any water from his goblet—she may be lovelorn, but she was no fool.   

     A knock on the door interrupted the conversation, and he rose to answer. “Fatima?”

     “Yes,” the woman’s voice could be heard.

      As the necromancer opened the door to his more conformable wife, Nonie held the cup to her lips and watched them carefully—that something was afoot, seemed clear.  There was the discussion with the Dey that he didn’t want her to understand, he had disappeared for the remainder of the day, and he was unhappy about her attack on the French mastermind of this little smuggling scheme. All in all, he was finally beginning to behave like a proper mark, which was a bit discouraging, considering she had been entertaining a vague theory that there had been a huge misunderstanding, and he was not a proper mark at all. Take hold of your foolish self, she chided, and be wary.

      As she watched him lean in to speak in a low tone with the much shorter Fatima, she felt a twinge of jealousy that Fatima was a confidant, and she was not. Which was silly, of course—he had said himself that they were working at cross-purposes. Whilst the other two were conferring, she took the opportunity to splash the contents of her water goblet on the rug behind the bench.  She may have a soft spot—a very soft spot—for this particular mark, but she’d also learned her lesson, when it came to taking drinks from his hand.    

      The necromancer approached with Fatima. “I must go, and I am not certain how long the Dey will require my services.  Perhaps you should rest.” From beneath lowered lids, he gave her a quick assessment.

     Ah, she thought; I am supposed to be sleepy.  Obligingly, she shut her eyes for a long moment, as though she found it hard to open them again. “I am tired.”   Tired of your shenanigans, that is—honestly, was it too much to ask for a husband who was not constantly dosing one?

     “Fatima will stay with you—you may wish to re-apply the salve, in an hour.” After exchanging a meaningful glance with Fatima, he was gone.

     Nonie lay down on the bed, and Fatima pulled up the stool to sit beside her. “Do you wish to undress, Nonie?”

     “I don’t think so.” With a knit brow, she studied the underside of the bed’s canopy for a few minutes. “Where is Saba?”

     Looking a bit self-conscious, Fatima answered evasively, “I will tell her that you were asking for her.”

     “We can’t play our card game without a third,” Nonie pointed out. 

     “Tomorrow,” Fatima soothed. “Tomorrow, we will play cards.”

     Suddenly, Nonie propped herself up on an elbow and faced the other woman, as though much struck. “You know, Fatima; I think Saba is trying to steal my beau.”

     “Oh—oh, no, Nonie—” Poor Fatima looked horrified.

     “Well, I am going to go find out.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed.

     Her eyes wide with dismay, Fatima’s hands fluttered up in protest. “Nonie—you mustn’t leave—my lord has said—”

     “It’s all right, Fatima; if you are worried, I will enlist Jamil to come along. I’ve a mind to give Jamie a proper dressing-down, I do.”  Fastening her head dress with an impatient movement, she threw a smile at the other woman, as she strode to the antechamber.  “I’ll be back in two shakes.”

    But her companion trailed behind her, protesting in her soft voice, “You cannot mean to go out now, Nonie—you mustn’t.”

    “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of sight.” She opened the door, and Jamil, as expected, was posted outside.  “Ho—Jamil, I’ve need of an escort. Come along.”

    In alarm, Jamil’s gaze darted to Fatima and then back to Nonie. “I am sorry, Miss Rafferty, but you must not leave your chambers.”

    “Then you’ll have to tie me down,” she said cheerfully.  “Good luck to you.”  With no further ado, she walked past him, and headed down the hallway.