The Barbary Mark
“My lord asks that you not leave your quarters,” said Fatima apologetically. “He is concerned that the French captain will attempt to seize you again.”
Nonie nodded, although she thought it more likely that Fatima’s lord was worried Nonie would interfere with his misbegotten plans, now that she’d been proven uncontainable. They were seated at the window bench, Fatima sorting the inevitable embroidery silks, whilst Nonie watched, privately holding the opinion that she could hardly imagine a more tedious pastime.
With a teasing smile, Nonie suggested, “We could wear disguises, Fatima, and spend the day fishing off the jetty.” She was actually rather fond of fishing, and while they were at it, she could see what the fishmongers had to report.
Her hands stilled for a moment, as Fatima wrinkled her serene brow in concern. “Oh no, Nonie; I have express orders that you must stay away from the harbor.”
Perversely, this disclosure only fueled Nonie’s desire to see what scheme was in play at the harbor, and unless she very much missed her guess, another phantom ship was in the process of being mustered out to Napoleon’s supporters. With all appearance of docility, she reassured her companion, “Preaching to the choir, my friend; recall that I was fished out of the sea like a mackerel, once upon a time.”
The other woman leaned forward and touched her hand in sympathy. “Were you very frightened, Nonie?”
“Terrified,” Nonie pronounced, inspecting a fingernail. “I thought I was done for.”
Fatima’s soft heart was clearly wrung. “Is your family searching for you, do you think?”
With a shrug, Nonie confessed, “I have no family, truth to tell—or none who will admit to my acquaintance, leastways. Instead, I came here looking to rescue Jamie—not that he is in any hurry to be rescued.”
With a stricken look, her companion quickly changed the subject. “If you’d rather not sew, perhaps we could play cards—oh; oh, perhaps not cards—”
Ruthlessly, Nonie did not allow the woman to sidestep the subject. “Where is Saba? She’s been playing least-in-sight, lately.”
Dropping her hands in her lap, Fatima knit her brow, and gazed at the wall. “I do not know—it is strange that she is not here. Shall I call for her?”
“No matter—I’ve a good guess,” offered Nonie darkly. “It’s a sad day, when I can’t trust my fellow wives.”
Fatima’s soft, expressionless gaze rested on her for a moment. “Would you be so very disappointed?”
A bit surprised by this dose of honesty, Nonie answered fairly, “No. Would Tahriz?”
The woman lowered her gaze, and fingered the threads with a small smile. “I think not; he is very pleased, that you are his wife.”
As he’d demonstrated very thoroughly last night, thought Nonie with satisfaction, although he’d rolled out of the bed with real regret, and had not been seen nor heard from since—she’d a good mind to track the man down, and throw a spanner in his wheel, for God and country. The problem was, she had little doubt that her movements were being strictly monitored, after the set-to in the stable—although she noted that Jamil was not at his usual post in the antechamber. Thinking on this, she asked Fatima, “Tell me of Jamil—I wondered if the two of you were related, but he said you weren’t kin.”
“No,” the woman replied, her eyes on the silks in her lap. “Jamil is not from France, Nonie.”
“Do you know where he hails from, then?”
Her nimble fingers busy again, the woman asked in a mild tone, “Is he not from Algiers?”
“He wouldn’t say—I’ve no idea why it is such a mystery.”
Fatima paused for a moment. “Perhaps he would rather not speak of the things which are in his past.”
Nonie shot her a swift glance, trying to decide if she heard a hint of innuendo in that last remark. In her own way, Fatima played everything just as close to the vest as did the wretched necromancer. “Well, Jamil is not on duty today, and small blame to him—I have shaken his faith in womankind.”
Fatima’s gaze lifted thoughtfully toward the antechamber. “I must call for Saba—I have not seen her today, and I hope she is not ill.” She rose, and Nonie held her arms over her head to stretch, toying with the idea of an escapade to relieve the boredom—perhaps she’d nip down to the harbor, to see whatever it was that was going forward that she wasn’t supposed to see. After all, another enemy combatant might present himself for her entertainment, and it would never do to fall out of practice.
Nonie quickly lowered her arms because she heard a soft signal whistle, and sure enough, Jamie slipped in through the window, which did not bode well—he must have a message he felt he couldn’t entrust to Ibram.
“Mr. O’Hay,” she exclaimed, pretending to be shocked, for Fatima’s sake. “I don’t believe the likes of you are allowed in here.”
But Jamie was in no mood, and strode over to her, saying in Gaelic. “I’m worried, Nonie—I think that bloody French bastard has seized Saba.”
She stared at him, then cursed herself for not thinking of this contingency—if Le Capitaine failed to secure the necromancer’s red-head, the dusky Saba was the next best choice—not to mention the disappearance of the man sent to capture Nonie must have heightened his general sense of anxiety. “We’ll soon find out; sit for a moment, and we’ll decide what’s best to do.”
Fatima stood by the door, and Jamie belatedly turned to her, and bowed in a distracted fashion. “How do you do, ma’am.”
“Please—what is it?” asked Fatima, looking from one to the other in concern. “Is it my lord?”
Nonie smiled to reassure her. “Have you sent for Saba? Jamie would like to speak with her, is all.”
“Yes.” Fatima turned to Jamie, and bowed her head. “She will be here shortly—may I offer tea?”
“She’s been taken, Nonie, I am certain of it.” Jamie’s tone was grim, as he declined Fatima’s offer with an abrupt gesture.
“Why you think they have her?”
Jamie could not be still, and so he paced back and forth. “We intercepted a communication from the embassy to the Dey, informing him of it, and seeking assurances that the mark is not going to rattle any more cages. Apparently, one of their men disappeared last night, and they suspect he was involved.”
“That was actually me,” Nonie confessed. “Sorry—they tried to take me, before they seized Saba.”
He halted in surprise. “Did they? Well, that tears it, then.” Frowning at the floor, he took a breath. “If they need her as a hostage, they won’t hurt her—”
Nonie was quick to reassure him, moving to take hold of his arm with her hands. “Of course, not; they’re spooked, is all. Once the pearls are delivered, and Le Capitaine is safely away, they’ll all ungird their loins.”
He nodded, and she gently squeezed his arm. It was a bit discomfiting, to see Jamie walking such a thin line—he was usually as steady as they came. On the other hand, if the French seized the necromancer, she’d no doubt be storming the embassy in short order, herself, so she couldn’t lay blame.
A knock on the door revealed a servant, coming to relay a message to Fatima, and even though it was in Arabic, the tenor of the words made Jamie’s head drop forward.
Her brow furrowed in distress, Fatima confessed, “He does not know where Saba is.”
“I’m afraid she is probably at the French embassy,” Nonie explained to the woman, thinking there was no point to sweetening the bad news. “They are holding her against Tahriz’s good behavior.”
Shocked, the woman looked from one to the other. “I cannot believe it—they would not dare.”
“I’m going over there,” said Jamie in Gaelic, his mouth pressed into a determined line.
Alarmed, Nonie grasped his shoulders. “Jamie, it’s not thinking, you are. Let’s plot this out, and decide what’s to be done—come now, you know better.”
Jamie stilled, and pressed his lips together. “Where’s the mark?”
“He’s gone—but he’ll not be happy about this development, and he’s powerful, Jamie—”
But Jamie was pent-up like a caged bear, and looked toward the door. “I’m going over there, to see what I can discover.”
Nonie could not like the fact that this drama was being enacted before the others—even if they could not understand the language, they could easily perceive what was afoot, and that Jamie was a bit too interested in Saba’s well-being. “Wait, Jamie; let’s check with the fishmongers; someone may have seen something, and if we can discover what Saba’s status is—that she’s being treated well—then we can take a breath, and assess the best way forward. Some discretion is advised, my friend.” This last said with a bit of emphasis.
At her implied rebuke, he made an effort to calm himself. “Aye, then.” He glanced at the others, and ran his hands through his sandy hair. “Sorry.”
“We’ll get her back, Jamie, but we can’t be jeopardizing the assignment.”
“Would you like me to go over to the embassy?” Fatima interrupted in her soft voice. “I know many of the servants; they will tell me whether Saba is there. Perhaps I can speak with her.”
But Nonie could not think this a good plan, and shook her head. “No, Fatima; they’ll just seize another wife, for good measure.”
But Fatima disagreed. “No—I will be careful, and wear a veil. The people I know there would not betray me.”
While they thought this over, Jamie gave Nonie a look she recognized—he wanted to know if Fatima could be trusted. Nonie placed one hand on the opposite shoulder—their “safe” signal—and said to the woman, “I suppose so long as you’re careful, such a visit would be helpful, Fatima. Mainly, we’d like to know if she’s being held there, and if she is being treated well.”
“We’ll go too,” Jamie said in English. “We’ll watch over you from nearby, and you need only signal, if there is any problem.”
Fatima agreed to this plan, but then added as an admonishment, “I must send word to my lord.”
Nonie knew that if they cautioned for secrecy, Fatima would almost certainly back out, so she agreed in principle. “Of course—of course, Fatima; but Jamie is worried, and we’d rather not wait, if you don’t mind—and we don’t want to cause any more trouble between Tahriz and the French, so it may be best to scotch this attempt, before it goes any further.”
Struck with the good sense of this, the small woman nodded, and then hurried to fetch her basket of embroidery silks, whilst Nonie donned her head dress, and took the opportunity to say to Jamie, “Try not to think the worst—they dare not mistreat her.”
But Jamie had himself well in hand, and nodded his agreement. “No—you’re right, of course; they’ll treat her well, because if they didn’t, it would set off the very firestorm they are hoping to avoid.” He met her eyes, the expression in his own a bit rueful. “Sorry for the panic; I just hate to think she’s frightened.”
Feeling that it was now safe to tease him, she offered with mock reproach, “You wouldn’t be half so worried, if it was me in their clutches.”
“Of course, I’d be worried,” he countered. “I’d be worried about the poor French.”