The Barbary Mark
The ship had rounded the point, and was headed out to the Mediterranean Sea when Nonie hoisted herself out of the port hole, and shouted up toward the deck, “Aide; we have a sick man, below.” She continued in this vein for a time, until a sailor leaned his head over the gunwale, above her. “The man is sick,” she shouted in French. “I think it is the smallpox.”
The sailor’s eyes widened in horror, and then he withdrew. With a jerk, she clamped the porthole shut, and went over to sit beside the ailing Jamie to await events.
With impressive fervor, he sweated and tossed and murmured unintelligibly, his eyes rolling back in his head as she bent over him in mock concern. “Grifter,” she murmured. “It would serve you right, if they tossed your sorry carcass to the sharks.”
She looked up, as the cargo trap door opened slowly, the barrel of a pistol prominently displayed as two sailors warily crept down the ladder. “Please, monsieurs,” she pleaded in a pitiful voice, weeping, as she clasped Jamie’s hand. “He is so very sick.” Lifting his arm, she slid his sleeve back, so as to expose the smallpox scars, and the sailors nearly tumbled over each other in their haste to ascend the ladder again.
As the girls murmured in distress, Nonie bent over Jamie, and hoped the captain’s fear that smallpox would wipe out his human cargo overrode any warnings he’d received from the necromancer about her scheming ways.
After a short time, the trap door reopened, and two different men appeared—almost certainly two who had already survived smallpox. Once again, Nonie implored them for mercy, weeping over Jamie’s hand in a distracted manner.
“Stand back,” one instructed, and they bent to lift the writhing and incoherent Jamie by his legs and arms. As they shuffled from side to side, carrying the sick man over to the ladder, Nonie fussed over Jamie, stroking his head, and begging the men to be careful, with the result that the expressions on their faces were almost comical, when she suddenly held their own pistols on them, and instructed them to freeze in a cool voice. “I’d like to speak to Captain de Gilles, if I may.”
In short order, Jamie and Nonie were assembled on the deck, their dispirited hostages shielding them, as they awaited the arrival of the captain.
“Madame,” said de Gilles, as he approached with long strides. “I am not so very surprised, I must confess.”
“Back,” Nonie warned, cocking the pistol against her sailor’s head. “I will have the truth from you, if you please. Where is it we go?”
Coming to a halt, he spread his hands in a gesture of surprise. “We go to France—fie; do you think I do not speak the truth? You sting me.”
Having decided that it hardly mattered, she moved on to the nub of the matter. “I would like to speak with you privately, and make an offer. If you do not accept my offer, then we will escape nevertheless, and you will be the poorer.”
They all stood for a moment in silence, as the French captain allowed a small smile to play around his lips. “By all means, then; let us go to my cabin, and I will hear what you have to say.”
They followed him down the companionway to the captain’s quarters, where they were offered wine, which Nonie politely refused for both of them. Nonie found him difficult to read, beneath his charming visage. They’d encountered de Gilles once before, in Normandy, but if he recognized them, he gave no indication. This was just as well; she would be hard-pressed to explain why two chateau servants were suddenly meddling around in volatile Barbary politics.
Without preamble, Nonie announced, “I will give you two very fine pearls for your troubles, if you look the other way whilst we escape.”
At this, he cocked a brow, impressed. “Truly, you have stolen pearls from the Dey?”
Nonie was stung in her own turn. “Of course, I have; you can’t think that I came upon them honestly?”
“De vrai,” he conceded. “Although—they may have been a gift.”
This said with a hint of innuendo, and Nonie was quick to disabuse him. “No—even I have standards. They were stolen, fair and square.”
He bowed his head. “Then I commend you.”
“So, if you will let us be on our way, we would be much obliged, and never mention that a deal was struck.”
Thoughtfully, he considered her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “I am given to understand, madame, that you must be saved from yourself, and to this end I must take you to France.”
“Good luck to you,” she said, almost kindly. “I’ve a score to settle with a certain necromancer, and I’ll not be sailing to France with you, one way or another.”
The captain shrugged a shoulder. “You are certain? I am to see to it that you are supplied with funds, and put on a ship to Ireland, if that is your desire.”
“That’s a very fine offer; but no thank you, just the same. I am going to return to Algiers, and take great pleasure in holding a blade to his throat.”
He raised his brows in mock-censure. “Fie, you are bloodthirsty.”
“I won’t kill him,” she promised. “But he won’t know that.”
Suddenly, de Gilles threw his head back, and laughed. “Bien. I think it would be prudent to take your pearls, and send you on your way.”
“Thank you,” she replied sincerely, and bent to untie the pill box from the hem of her shift. Plucking two large pearls, she handed them over to him.
“This one,” he said mildly, “is not genuine.” He handed it back to her, and waited expectantly.
Now it was Jamie’s turn to laugh aloud, and Nonie couldn’t help smiling, herself. “Isn’t it? Well, here’s another, then.”
After tucking the pearls into his waistcoat pocket, he strode over to the cabin door. “This way; I will have a boat lowered for you. We are only a mile off shore, and it is a good place to land—there is a small town, at the point, and you will be able to hire camels.”
“Saba comes too.” Jamie spoke up, unexpectedly.
When Nonie glanced at him in surprise, he explained in Gaelic, “I’m not leaving her here with the likes of him—we’ve no idea what he’s going to do with the girls, and I don’t have a good feeling about it.”
This seemed a valid point, and—although she probably shouldn’t press her luck—Nonie turned to ask de Gilles, “What do you plan to do with the girls in the hold?”
“Les jeune filles? Since you have refused to accompany us, I do not believe I will tell you.”
But Nonie was silent, because she had that feeling she sometimes had, when her instincts were telling her to pay closer attention. Les jeune filles—it meant “the little girls,” and was the code name for the smuggled pearls. There was something here—something that nibbled at the corners of her mind—
“They will not be put to prostitution, if that is your concern.”
She didn’t care for his patronizing tone, but replied mildly, “It isn’t my concern—my concerns are a bit wider-ranging. Nevertheless, we will take Saba with us, and relieve you of that particular burden.”
De Gilles sent an amused, sidelong glance at Jamie which expressed his awareness that the man did not trust him. “Ah; I will be sorry to see her go.” He then stepped out the door to issue instructions.
“I’d like to knock him down,” Jamie commented into the silence.
Nonie’s gaze was thoughtful, as she contemplated the door. “He’s a puzzle, he is. I don’t know what to think of him—which is very unlike me, you must admit.”
But Jamie continued annoyed. “I’ve an impulse to free the girls, just to spite him, but I imagine they’d only be re-captured and taken back to the slave market, so I suppose it’s not worth the effort.”
“No,” she agreed. “And pray let’s remember our assignment, for more than a few minutes at a time. We can’t be distracted by every tale of hard luck in this God-forsaken place—there’s one behind every corner.”
Any reply was forgotten as Saba entered, and in two strides, Jamie was over to her, clasping her in an embrace and murmuring in Italian, while she clung to him, her eyes tightly closed.
Fancy that, thought Nonie, observing the two; Jamie truly loves her. She felt a pang, as she considered her own lover, who’d lately tricked her into boarding a slaver’s ship, and packed her off without a second thought. Perhaps she’d actually be angry with him, this time, instead of collapsing at his feet with a craven show of devotion—look where it had gotten her.
Shaking off this unhappy thought, she noted in Gaelic, “Between my red head and Saba’s bosom, everyone will remember us, Jamie. Let’s have Saba wear my kaftan, and I’ll dress as a boy.”
This was accomplished, and soon the three of them were boarding the tender to be rowed ashore. After Jamie and Saba had descended the rope ladder, de Gilles bowed in an ironic gesture to Nonie. “Adieu, madame. It is my sincere hope that we never meet again.”
There was something in his tone that told her that he had indeed recognized them, from their Normandy adventure. With a small smile of acknowledgement, she turned to descend. “Never is a long time, monsieur. I will say au revoir, instead.”
“As you wish,” he agreed politely, and watched her descend with an unreadable expression.