ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 25

 

     “We go to visit Jamie,” Nonie explained over her shoulder to Jamil. “I’m going to scold him for leaving me in the lurch, today.”

     “Yes, miss.”  Apparently, Jamil had abandoned all hope of stopping her, which was just as well, since she needed him to act as a guide. 

     “It would be best to take the tunnels over to the slave market,” she continued in a brisk tone. “That way, I can stay out of sight—I imagine there is an entrance here, somewhere?”

     There was a silent pause, and she looked back at him with impatience. “Fine—if you won’t show me where it is, I’ll use the entrance by my old quarters—but I’ve an abysmal sense of direction, and if they find my skeletal remains months from now, it will be laid squarely at your door.”

     “This way,” he capitulated, and led her through a door and down a set of servant’s stairs, until they came to a narrow annex. After a quick glance around, he walked behind a set of shelves, and then lifted a hatch in the floor, exposing the entrance to a tunnel that looked very much like the one near the slave market.  After pausing to light a lantern, he descended, then helped her down the ladder, and closed the hatch behind them. 

     Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, as she followed him in along the narrow confines of the tunnel. Nonie broke the silence, her voice echoing off the earthen walls.  “I haven’t thanked you for saving me at the warehouse, Jamil.”

     “It was my pleasure, miss.”

     Ruefully, she shook her head. “I don’t know if I would have done the same, in your position—I hope there are no hard feelings, between us.”

     “Not at all, miss.”

     Not one to engage in idle conversation, was our Jamil.  “Are you related to Fatima?”

     There was a slight pause. “No, miss.”

      She eyed his back speculatively. There was definitely an affinity between the two, and it seemed unlikely that the naïve Fatima had taken a lover, amongst the guards. And then there was that unshakable feeling that Fatima—for all her gentle naiveté—was the keeper of fearsome secrets. “I don’t suppose you will tell me where the necromancer has disappeared to, this fine night.”

     “I’m afraid not, miss—here we are.”

     He turned at an intersection, and then led her to a ladder and another exit hatch, but it was not the one by the slave market; instead they emerged into a stable that smelled strongly of livestock and dust, and brought back an immediate memory of the camel pen.

     She took a doubtful look around, as he doused the lantern. “Did we take a wrong turn?”

     “It is a short walk from here,” he explained, dropping the hatch closed behind them. “It is best to approach cautiously, to ensure that no one witnesses our entry.”

     She refrained from pointing out that the most cautious approach would, of course, be through the tunnels, where she wouldn’t be exposed to above-ground eyes.  But if Jamil wanted to avoid the tunnels, it seemed a likely indicator that the necromancer himself was somewhere in the tunnels, and wouldn’t it be a lark, to run into him unexpectedly? But it probably would be best if she didn’t—she was in an uncertain mood, just now, what with this latest attempt to cosh her out.

     After a careful look around, Jamil led her down the street toward the towers of the government buildings.  She could see the main square ahead, where the slave market was located—they were approaching the long way, from the opposite side, which only strengthened her belief that Jamil was avoiding the usual entrance tunnel into the bagnios.  Never one to choose discretion when the other options were so much more interesting, she offered, “If we do run across your master, I will assure him that I forced you to accompany me, and that you’d little choice in the matter.”

    “Yes, miss.” 

     Lord, the man was stoic—and I believe he is afraid to say too much to me, she thought. But little does he know that I’m a winkler of the first order, and will eventually unearth any and all secrets.  “Aren’t I more correctly a ‘ma’am’? Being as how you did the honors, and all?”

     Ah—this did seem to shake him a bit. He turned so that his eyes met hers for a moment.  “I beg your pardon—ma’am.”

    With a warm smile that had softened many a stoic man’s heart, she assured him, “I was only teasing—you may call me whatever you wish, Jamil.” He’d seemed genuinely stricken there, for a moment, and she should control her impulse to tease; not everyone appreciated it.  The necromancer did, though—he thought her amusing, and it pleased them both when she teased him, especially in bed.  He would chuckle softly into her throat, so that it seemed to reverberate to the soles of her feet—

     “Ma’am?” Jamil whispered, interrupted her thoughts.  “We’ll go across, now.”

     “Oh—sorry, I was woolgathering.”

     She ducked her head, and walked beside him as they crossed the square—there were only a few people scattered about, at this time of evening, but she could feel that her escort was wary, and alert.

     “Are you expecting trouble?” she asked, matter-of-factly.  “Have you an extra pistol?”

     “No, ma’am.” He slanted her an alarmed glance, and so she took pity on him, and followed the rest of the way in silence.

      Once in the bagnio, they made their way through the throngs of slaves, and into the back area, where Jamie resided. It was not yet late, and so she was not wholly surprised to see that Jamie was nowhere in evidence.  Her escort inquired of a guard, and then explained, “He is eating, and will be fetched back.”

     Nonie regarded him with a quirked mouth. “He dines out, again? Faith, he’ll never want to escape.”

     Her escort bowed his head. “I believe that courtesies have been extended.”

      Thanks to the necromancer, no doubt, she thought. He probably facilitates Jamie’s spying, so as to spy on Jamie, in turn—hopefully Jamie was better at that particular cat-and-mouse game than the mark—although she’d learned several times over that it never paid to underestimate her better half. 

      After deciding she may as well make herself comfortable, she settled in to sit cross-legged on the floor, her back to the wall, and a wary eye on the door—prisons always brought back bad memories. “Where do you hail from, Jamil?”

      The casual question was met with a quiet disclaimer. “I would rather not say, ma’am.”

      So—apparently, the same mysterious place as the mark, which only made sense; the two were as thick as thieves. “You should make something up,” she suggested. “Madagascar, perhaps—just to keep the conversation alive.  Have you a cat?”

      He shook his head, and there was the merest hint of a smile on his lips. “I do not.”

      With a sigh, she conceded, “Then I’m afraid we are fast running out of topics to discuss.”  Fortunately, in a few short moments, Jamie made his appearance, full of apologies as he walked past the curtained door, giving Jamil a cursory glance.  “Sorry,” he said in Gaelic. “I lost track of the time.” 

      “All’s well,” she assured him easily. “Any debriefings to be had?”

      “Le Capitaine’s arm is in a sling, and the embassy is armed to the teeth. The Dey has given assurances that his forces were not behind the attack, and has offered an escort of guards which the French—no surprise here—have declined.  I am awaiting confirmation that Le Capitaine has decided to sail away when the shipment leaves—tomorrow, or the next day.”

      “Oh? Well, won’t that be an interesting cruise.” As Jamie was slated to board the ship and track where the pearls were going, it would make for some quality eavesdropping.  “Poor man; one can hardly blame him. He’s probably rethinking this whole unholy alliance—there’s nothing like a bit of bloodletting, to cause a change of attitude.”

      Jamie cocked his head with relish. “Not to mention he’ll not be comfortable walking down a narrow street, any time soon.”

       “That he won’t,” she agreed.  “But I am here to let you know that something is afoot; I think another phantom ship is being mustered out—tonight, perhaps.  The mark tried to dose me again, and he’s disappeared. There must be a reason he wants me to be fast asleep.”

     Jamie raised his sandy brows in surprise. “Tonight? Lord, does he never rest?”

     “I think my arrival on the scene has caused him to step it up—I make him nervous, I do; he’s worried that his days as an imperialist are drawing to a close.”

      Jamie smiled, as though they were engaged in casual conversation. “I’ll warn the fishmongers, then, and make sure we don’t miss this one, like the last one.” 

      Fondly, Nonie reached for his hand. “Do you think the pearls pass through the slave market? My escort wanted to avoid the tunnels, coming in.  And—come to think of it—the man is usually posted here at the bagnios, which seems a bit strange; if he’s working with the mark, you’d think he’d be closer to the harbor, watching the pearls come in and out.”

     In a desultory fashion, Jamie played with her fingers.  “I think it unlikely the pearls come through the slave markets, this is not a secure area.”  He thought about it for a moment. “Perhaps the mark keeps an ear to the ground—he wants to know who is brought in, by the pirates. The pirates earn their bread and butter by extorting ransoms, after all.”

     Nonie laughed, as though Jamie had said something amusing. “Hard to believe he’s extorting his own ransoms, on the side.  He’d be double-crossing the Dey.”

     As though teasing, Jamie tugged on a lock of her hair. “Make no assumptions.”

     She raised her gaze to his, and didn’t have to feign her pensive reply.  “No, I won’t, but I think I know less than when I started. He’s a walking bundle of contradictions, he is.”  She traced a finger on her bent knee, and confessed, “I’d like to extract him.” There; she’d said the-thing-that-must-not-be-spoken-aloud.

     Jamie, bless him, did not immediately question her sanity. “We’re not exactly in the business of extracting people, Nonie; quite the opposite, in fact.”

     “You want me to extract—the female,” she countered.

      Jamie tilted his head. “That’s not exactly the same thing—the female is willing. Whatever would you do with him?  Put him in a cell somewhere, ʼtill the next war is over? He wouldn’t thank you.”

     But she continued stubbornly, “I haven’t thought it through, but I’d hate for him to stay here, once I’ve completed the assignment. There are some powerful people who would like to see him dead.”

     “That’s exactly why he was chosen to be the mark,” he reminded her. “Not to mention he’s made his own bed.” 

      Unable to argue with this blunt dose of reality, she decided to change the subject.  “I was spotted by one of the Agha’s men, coming down from the rooftop. Just so you know—hopefully, no one will be connecting the two incidents, but if they start thinking the shooter was female—”

     “We’ll have to accelerate. I understand.”

      Rising to her feet, she bade Jamie farewell with a fond embrace, and he whispered into her ear, “Take care, Nonie; don’t get your head turned.”

     Too late, she thought, but Jamie is right; I’m having air dreams about happily-ever-after, and there is no such thing—at least not for me and the Dey’s necromancer, who smuggles pearls for Napoleon, and indulges in some other skullduggery, on the side. And as I am spending most of my time trying to figure out how to save our mark from himself, Jamie is right to be worried.  If I keep this up, I’ll no longer be a legend, around Whitehall’s hallowed halls.

      Despite this stern attempt to draw her wayward impulses back in line, Nonie was preoccupied as she followed Jamil back across the square, and along the dark shadows toward the stable.  Therefore, she was wholly unprepared when, as they slipped through the stable doors, an arm snaked around her neck, and the unmistakable tip of a blade pressed against her throat. 

     “Hold,” said a heavily-accented voice beside her ear. “Or she dies.”