The Barbary Mark
Nonie clasped the waist of her camel-driver, deep in thought, as the ungainly animal lumbered along the dusty road. They were traveling in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, having spent the earlier portion of the day at thievery, so as to amass some funds—she and Jamie were excellent pickpockets, particularly when they worked as a team.
Jamie and Saba rode the other camel, Saba sleepily resting her cheek against Jamie’s back as they walked the long road back to Algiers. Nonie’s hair was tucked into a boy’s taqiyah, and they’d stained her face and hands with a batch of walnut dye, which had the added effect of protecting her from the brutal sun. That anyone who scrutinized her closely would conclude that she was not a boy couldn’t be helped; she would try to avoid such scrutiny, and it was a mighty relief not to be constrained by the wretched kaftan anymore—Saba was welcome to it.
They were traveling back to Algiers along the coast road, the deep blue sea visible to their left as they passed vineyards, groves and the occasional village on their plodding, rocking journey.
Jamie shifted a hand to hold Saba’s hands secure at his waist, as she seemed to be asleep, her head lolling against his back in rhythm with the camel’s footsteps.
“I’m glad we have her,” Nonie remarked softly, so as not to wake the other girl. “I have some questions.”
Jamie turned to bestow a rueful smile. “I’m sorry to have pulled such a trick, Nonie, but there was no possible way I was going to leave her aboard.”
Since this seemed the appropriate opening to give voice to some disturbing thoughts that she’d been entertaining, Nonie mentally girded her loins. “I don’t know, Jamie; I think de Gilles isn’t at all what he seems.”
Jamie shrugged. “I suppose that’s the rumor. Hard to believe it’s true, though.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” She paused. “I meant that I don’t think he’s trading slaves.”
With open skepticism, he glanced at her. “And he just happens to have a cargo-hold full of slave girls?”
Looking out over the serene blue sea, she persevered. “Hear me out, for a moment. What if—what if the mark is not supporting Napoleon?”
Raising a brow, Jamie replied diplomatically, “Then he is doing an excellent imitation of someone who is supporting Napoleon.”
Alive to his tone, she made a wry mouth. “Don’t think that I’m looking for an excuse to clear him; I’ve already leveled that charge at myself. But—if he is smuggling pearls for Napoleon, then Fatima and Captain de Gilles are involved, up to their necks.”
Jamie nodded in agreement. “What of it? He’s a slaver, and she’s the mark’s wife—not a surprise, either way.”
But Nonie persisted, “I made a comment to de Gilles about his beloved emperor, and he was quick to refute it; it was almost as if he couldn’t contain his revulsion.”
Jamie contemplated the back of his camel’s head. “Go on.”
“What struck me was that it was the same response I got from Fatima. She’s French, and I teased her about her emperor.” Frowning, she watched the road before them for a moment. “I had the same impression from each; it was as if the mask each of them wore suddenly slipped—just for a moment.”
But Jamie remained unconvinced. “All right—let’s assume, for the nonce, that they despise Napoleon, the both of them. But the mark is working hand-in-glove with the Dey to arrange for the shipments; our intelligence is irrefutable.”
She turned to him, having decided there was nothing for it; she had to voice her suspicions aloud. “That’s just it; the intelligence-gatherers thought he referred to the pearls—but what if the jeune filles were actually jeune filles?”
Jamie glanced over to her in surprise, his eyes flashing blue against his oil-stained face. “He’s smuggling girls?”
“Think on it, Jamie. We saw a cargo-full of girls, and they didn’t seem frightened or alarmed, did they? And de Gilles said they were sailing to France, where slavery is illegal.”
“Prostitution,” he said bluntly. “You are being naïve if you think anything else—no matter what he told us.”
Nonie looked ahead again, and frowned. “It just doesn’t fit, Jamie—the mark, Fatima, Jamil—even Saba; none of them are the type of people who would be involved in smuggling young girls for prostitution—I’d bet my teeth on it.”
He contemplated this thought, as the camels plodded along, the placid beasts ignoring two dogs who ran alongside for a few minutes, barking. “You think he is freeing the slaves—like a bloody Moses? But that makes no sense, Nonie—why wouldn’t he just tell you, if that was his game?”
Slowly, she replied, “Because we are working at cross-purposes—faith, he’s said it to me, outright, and more than once. I assumed he meant Napoleon, but now—now I wonder if it has nothing to do with Napoleon. We want to put a stop to the supply ships, and he doesn’t—because of the girls. He is using the supply ships to smuggle slaves to freedom—and he must be doing it without the Dey’s knowledge.”
But Jamie found this implausible, and fixed her with the same look that he usually gave her when he thought she was stretching their luck. “How is that possible? The place is infested with spies.” That they were acquainted with many of them went without saying.
But Nonie was becoming more and more convinced of her theory, now that she was voicing it aloud. “The more I think on it, the more it makes sense—the mark has his own network, and his people are running their own, parallel operation, whoever they are.”
Jamie contemplated the road ahead, thinking this over. “If this is true—and I’m not for a moment certain that it is—who, exactly, are they? French royalists?”
This was, of course, the thousand-pound question. “I don’t know—perhaps, although I don’t believe the mark is French. I don’t know what he is, and he is very reluctant to let me know—as though it would give the game away.”
Jamie met her eyes, and asked another thousand-pound question. “So how will this affect our assignment?”
She sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t. But it would explain why some things never seemed to add up to me. Like how the mark seems so—I don’t know, so honorable, I suppose, despite his dark doings. And how the wives and concubines are not truly wives and concubines. And how he is trying to influence the Dey, with his silly hocus-pocus—” She paused, suddenly struck, and asked, “Do you mind if we wake Saba? I’d like to ask her something.”
“Of course, the assignment has every priority.” This said in a firm tone, to make up for the fact that he had already demonstrated that this was not exactly true. Gently shaking the hands he held at his waist, he said, “Saba—svegliati.”
The girl raised her head, disoriented, and murmured a few words in a language unfamiliar to Nonie, which was a surprise; over the course of their work she and Jamie were able to speak at least a smattering of nearly every European language.
“What is that?” She asked Jamie in Gaelic. “Hebrew, perhaps?”
He seemed equally surprised. “I don’t think so; she wanted me to know from the start that she was Christian.” He rubbed the girl’s arm gently and asked in Italian, “Are you awake? Nonie wishes to speak with you.”
“Si.” The girl smiled a sleepy smile at Nonie. “Bene.”
Nonie’s Italian was a bit sketchy, so she slowly translated out the question as best she could. “The sister of the Dey—Nadia. Dead?”
The girl nodded, a faint wrinkle between her brows the only indication that the question was at all unusual. “Si.”
The girl struggled with the translation. “War—” She then made a clutching gesture with her hands.
“Catturato?” suggested Jamie. “Captured?”
The girl nodded. “Si, catturato.”
With some excitement, Nonie turned to Jamie. “I stand corrected; the Dey knows about the jeune filles, Jamie. He is allowing the mark to smuggle them out, because of what happened to his sister. The reason the mark is posing as a necromancer is because the Dey believes that his dead sister wishes the girls to be set free. That’s the whole point.”
“Holy Mother,” pronounced Jamie, shaking his head in admiration. “What a scheme—hard to believe he pulled it off.”
But Nonie found that she was mightily heartened. “It all makes sense, now—the mark never seemed like a grifter who’d exploit the grieving, the way he did.”
“I hope you are right,” he replied in a tone that cautioned her. “Be wary, though; obviously, he wants us out of the arena.”
But Nonie had the bit between her teeth, and smiled in a friendly fashion at Saba. “Tahriz—your brother?”
Startled, the girl disclaimed, but not before Nonie caught a glimpse of wariness in her dark eyes. “They are related,” she pronounced to Jamie, still smiling at Saba. “Bet on it.”
Jamie grinned, suddenly. “Then we’ll be related by marriage—you and I; fancy that.”
But Nonie firmly quashed a pang of regret. “Not really, Jamie—mine’s a hoax, remember? Can you find out where she hails from, do you think?”’
“We’ll see,” he temporized. “I’ll not be browbeating her.”
Alive to his defensive tone, she changed the subject. “Lord, but these beasts are slow. Let’s hope le bon capitaine hasn’t already sailed with the pearls.”
But Jamie was unconcerned. “If he has, he can’t have gone far—I’ll find a way to track him, never fear.” He glanced at her. “You’ll watch over this one, while I’m about it?”
She lifted her brows at him in mock reproof. “Like an angel at the cradle.”
He looked ahead, hesitating, and then confessed, “It’s only that I’m worried you’ll do something foolish, Nonie. It’s smitten, you are.”
In a light tone, she replied, “Not so smitten as to insist we storm a ship single-handedly, and jeopardize the assignment in the process.”
“Touché,” he replied in a dry tone. “I’ll say no more.”