ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The Barbary Mark

Chapter 26

 

     Nonie immediately placed both hands on the man’s arm, and made a small whimpering sound, thinking that it never rained unless it poured, but at least matters were starting to pick up—it would give her less time to lie around, mooning over the mark.  From practiced experience, she’d already concluded that the man was French, and was working alone, since there was no flanker covering Jamil. It was always the way of it; the French were never very good at strategy—with the exception of their erstwhile emperor, of course.

     Assessing the attacker, Jamil placed a hand on his sword hilt, but the Frenchman jerked Nonie slightly, to show he meant business. Meeting Jamil’s eyes, she subtly raised her fingers, signaling to Jamil that he was to stay back.  Fixing him with an imperative stare that was at odds with her voice, she whispered, “Oh—oh please, don’t hurt me—”

     “You will go tell your master that we will hold the girl at the French embassy,” the man commanded Jamil with a jerk of his head. “Go.”

     Instead, Jamil took a small step forward, but Nonie frowned mightily at him, and lifted her fingers again, as she made a strangled sound of fear. Responding to the message in her eyes, Jamil stepped back again. “Let her go; I will come in her place.”

      “No—the girl will not be harmed, as long there are no further attempts on Le Capitaine.  Now, go.”

       Lord—here’s a wrinkle, thought Nonie.  In light of the necromancer’s reaction on the jetty, they must believe he’d not risk any harm to his red-headed wife, so they decided to hold her hostage, until Le Capitaine made his hasty departure.   Truly, the irony of it all would be amusing, if she didn’t have a blade to her throat.

      She whispered in a tremulous voice, “Please; please don’t hurt me.”  With a slight lift of her fingers she reminded Jamil that he was not to move, as she contemplated what was best to be done.  The last needful thing was to be held captive at the French embassy, and the second-to-last needful thing was to allow this man to go back and tell the others that she was no ordinary Irish lass. Therefore, he had to be taken out, and in such a way that no one knew what had happened to him.

     Nonie contemplated her options; she could twist the wrist beneath her hands, and thrust his own blade into the Frenchman’s jugular, but the mess would be God-awful, and she never liked to leave a mess behind—messes were for amateurs.  Best use a neater method.  Faltering, she pleaded, “If—if I give you a pearl, will you let me go?”

     There was a pause. “What pearls?”

     “I have some pearls.  I—I found them.” She allowed the implication that she had stolen them from the palace to sink in. “I will give you one, if you let me go.  Please, I beg of you.”

     Warily, the man released his grip on her—one should never underestimate the persuasive power of greed—although he kept the knife at the ready. “Show me.”

     With trembling hands, she bent to extract the pill box from her hem, at the same time sliding the handle of the small, slim knife into her palm.  Nervously, she fumbled and dropped the pill box, which opened upon impact, sending several pearls the size of small pebbles skittering across the dirt floor. In the ensuing silence, the pearls glowed in the flickering lantern light; several were genuine, and could be used as bribes, or for emergency passage, if needed. The others only looked real.

     “Stay back,” the Frenchman warned Jamil, as he fixed his wary gaze on the other man.  The Frenchman bent to collect the pearls, and with a quick thrust, Nonie plunged the blade of her knife into the base of his skull. With a guttering sound, the Frenchman collapsed forward; death was instantaneous, and had the advantage of producing very little blood.

     With a gasp, Jamil knelt beside the fallen man, feeling for a pulse.

     “He’s dead,” Nonie advised. “We’ll need to dispose of his body.” Normally, she would hold her mirror to his nose and mouth for a minute, just to be certain—sometimes a pulse was too faint to be felt—but in this case, there was no need.

     For a moment, it seemed as though Jamil didn’t hear her, as he cradled the man’s head, and then gently closed the dead man’s eyes with his fingers. Nonie watched in bemusement—not the behavior one would expect, from a slave master dealing with an unbeliever. “Quickly, Jamil. Shall I fetch Jamie, to help carry him?”

     With a glance at the door, Jamil grasped the dead man’s legs, and began to drag him toward the interior wall. “No—I will hide him in the straw, and return later. I must bring you back to the palace, and quickly.”

     After hesitating a moment, she agreed. “Aye then. But if you plan to toss him in the bay, he had to be weighted down, otherwise he’ll wash up.”  She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she didn’t know how well-versed he was in the proper disposal of bodies.

     When they emerged from the tunnel at the palace entrance, she could sense that Jamil was on the horns of a dilemma; he was probably entrusted with keeping watch over her—and had failed miserably, in his task—but there was a dead body to dispose of, in the meantime.   “Go back and take care of it, if you wish.  I’ll stay in my room— my word of honor.”

     Her companion thought this over, and seemed to agree. “My lord must be told of this,” he warned, as he opened the hatch for her.

     “Definitely—he must be made aware that they are seeking leverage over him.”

     She arrived at the necromancer’s chambers, and saw that Fatima had vacated the premises—probably to tattle to their mutual husband.  The fact that—in hindsight—she should have stayed safely tucked away this evening did not improve Nonie’s temper, as she settled in a chair in the dark room to await the return of her lord and master.  Lucky for Fatima that she’s not home, she thought; I’m in a mood, I am.

     Upon reflection, it was actually good news that Le Capitaine wished to seize her—it showed he was indeed planning to decamp, as Jamie’s spies had reported.  Otherwise, there would be no point in holding the necromancer’s wife as a hostage against his good behavior; such a bold move could not be sustained in the long term. 

      Since one of the goals of their assignment was to turn the two factions against each other, this was a good sign, and she mustn’t fret because the mark was now in the line of fire.  As Jamie had correctly pointed out, he’d brought this on himself.  Once Jamie sailed away with the pearls, she would complete her assignment, and then disappear from Algiers, never to be seen again.

      This time, however, it would be different.  Not only was she charged with extracting Saba, she very much doubted she’d be able to walk away from the Barbary mark, no matter the price she might have to pay.

     It was in this uneven frame of mind that she eventually heard the necromancer’s approach, and to send a strong message of disapproval, she threw her knife so that it landed with a thud in the wall beside the door, as he walked in. 

     Startled, his gaze flew to hers, and her heart seemed to twist within her breast, consumed with a yearning sensation that she’d not known for many, many years.  Now look what you’ve done, she thought; Tanny would say that you’ve met your fate, and she’d have the right of it—how very unmanageable life is.  I should be very unhappy with this wretched man, and instead, all I want to do is cast myself on his chest.

     He stood still, assessing her. “Are you uninjured?”

     To make up for her weakness, she replied in a steely voice, “You are going to swear by whatever you hold holy that you are not going to try to dose me again.”

     He approached to crouch down before her, taking her hands in his, and looking up into her face. “I do so swear.  Forgive me, Nonie. I feared for your safety.”

     That his concern had been proved correct, only served to annoy her all the more, and she remarked with some irritation, “It’s lucky, you are, that I love you.” She’d been practicing, there in the dark, having not said the words since she was seven years old, but it still came out awkwardly, and she felt a bit foolish, and wished she hadn’t said.

     He lifted his hand and held it against her cheek in a gesture of silent reconciliation. “And I love you. You went to see Jamie?”

     “Yes, I went to see Jamie—not that it did me much good; he’s too busy dallying with your wife to do his job.  I look about me, and I am mightily disheartened by the men folk, with the exception of Jamil, who can hold his position like the Rocks of Moher.”

     He closed his eyes, briefly. “You take such chances.”

     But in her need to reassure him, she disclaimed, “No—not truly. No one thinks me dangerous, and by the time they reassess, it is too late.”

     He bent his head, and traced a forefinger along her wrist.  “If you had the chance, would you leave it?”

     With a leap of her pulse, she wondered if he was going to suggest that they both strike out anew, together. “I suppose that depends,” she offered carefully.

     “Is it money?  Because I can see to it—”

     Biting back her annoyance, she interrupted, “You are a fool, if you think I would let another war erupt, without doin’ my best to jibe the bit.”  In the ensuing silence, she took a calming breath, and confessed, “I didn’t mean to snap; I thought for a hopeful moment that you were suggesting we run away together.” 

     His gaze met hers in sympathy. “No. I am sorry to disappoint you.”

     “Why not?” she persisted, thinking that she may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb—she had already made a fool of herself, when it came to him.  “I won’t believe you don’t want to be with me—that this—this business of yours is more important to you.”

     “I love you,” he said quietly, the expression in his eyes grave. “And so, I want you away from here with all speed.”

     “Away from you?”

     His gaze held hers. “I’m afraid so.”

     Frowning, she considered this paradox.  “I’ll go—tomorrow, if you like—but you must come with me.” 

     Ducking his head, he rubbed his thumbs across the backs of her hands.  “I cannot.”

     They have some hold over him, she thought—they must. She had seen too many fanatical imperialists to confuse him with one; he was no ideologue, this man.  And whatever it was, he could not disclose it, even to her—even to appeal for aid from the mighty British, who—and he must know this—were going to make their way to Algiers in the not-too-distant future, and bombard the daylights out of the knaves that held sway in this miserable place. 

     I won’t tease him, she decided; I can see that it grieves him when I do.  There’s something here that I don’t understand, and I’ve got to think about it, for a small space. Instead, she offered, “You mustn’t be angry at Jamil; he did his best to dissuade me from my course, but I had the bit between my teeth, and I was annoyed with you.”

      He raised his face again, and said with a touch of humor, “No. I think that person does not exist, who can stop you, when you have the bit between your teeth.”

     “You could,” she whispered softly, then wished she hadn’t; she’d just decided she wasn’t going to tease him, for heaven’s sake.

     “I am not so certain,” he countered. “You are very good at what you do.”

      That it wasn’t exactly a compliment was not lost on her, and she decided it was past time to change the conversation to more enjoyable channels.  They were at a standstill, and the number of nights they would spend together were—sad to say—dwindling.  “I know something that you are very good at—makes my toes curl, it does.”  She gave him a look from under her lashes.

       Ah—that light in his eyes came up again—the one she lived for. “I’m afraid I cannot stay.”

      Teasing, she tilted her head. “You are wasting valuable time, then.”

      With no further demur, he stood, gathered her in his arms, and headed for the bed.