The Barbary Mark
The fishmonger gathered up his ripe-smelling sacks, and prepared to depart. He’d brought them their supper, along with a briefing on the latest developments between the warring factions in the fair city of Algiers. They were staying in a small, nondescript residence which served as a safe house for any of their people who happened to be skulking in the area. The fishmonger had informed them that Le Capitaine was still in town, and that he and the Agha had publicly quarreled on the grounds of the embassy. Of the necromancer, there had been no sign.
“He’s probably sleeping,” Nonie remarked, as she picked the last bits of meat from the fish bones with her fingernails—Lord, she was hungry, after the day’s adventures. “He’s exhausted after staying up all night, to send off a batch of slaves. Leastways, he was the last time.”
“What was the quarrel about?” Jamie asked, as he passed the jug of water to Saba.
“The pearls,” answered the man. “There were accusations and counter-accusations about double-dealing.”
This was not a surprise, as the Dey had a history of double-dealing; after all, it was the reason Le Capitaine felt compelled to make a visit, and bang some heads together.
Nonie observed in Gaelic, “A quarrelsome man, is the Agha; I believe he knows what the mark is about, and is trying to influence the Dey the other way.”
Jamie nodded with satisfaction; a divided enemy was a weakened enemy. “That’s an impressive tangle—the Frenchman against everyone, and the necromancer against the Agha. I imagine nerves are ragged at the palace.”
But Nonie cautioned, “Not too ragged, I hope.” She addressed the fishmonger in English. “Is Le Capitaine under guard? We don’t want him to run into a blade in some dark corner, before he sails.”
The fishmonger assured them, “He goes nowhere without a vanguard—four or five men around him.”
“Do we have anyone close to him?”
“No—it was impossible to permeate. We have watchers at the embassy, though. The rumor is that he sails the day after next.”
“Put me on the crew,” Jamie directed him. “Even if I have to be a cook.”
“You are not a very good cook,” Nonie observed doubtfully. “You’ll be found out, and you’ll wind up in the drink.”
“Hush, you—you’re not exactly one to speak.” He smiled at her and she smiled back; their spirits were always buoyed when an assignment looked to be heading for a successful close. This one, of course, had involved a few more twists and turns than some of the others, but nevertheless, it appeared that all loose ends would soon be tied up nicely. Except for her own loose end, of course.
They saw the contact out, then settled down to drink tea out of pottery cups. Jamie motioned for Saba to come sit with him, and with a happy sigh, the girl settled within his arms, the shadows only serving to accentuate the contours of her beautiful profile. Watching them melt into each other, Nonie felt a pang of yearning so strong she had to look away for a moment. “What of—the other girl?” she asked Jamie, not wanting to mention Aditi’s name.
He pressed his cheek against Saba’s head. “She’s on a ship to India. I don’t have high hopes.”
“Ah, well; at least you managed to set her free. She can’t ask for more.”
But Jamie did not want to speak of Aditi. “It may be best that no one here knows that we have returned.” The blue eyes slid over to her.
She didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I’m truly sorry, Jamie, but I could no more not see him again than you could allow this one to sail away with de Gilles.”
He made no response, but absently stroked Saba’s arms. He knows me all too well, she thought, making a wry mouth—dear Jamie. “And I’m so very tempted to confirm what I suspect—and confront him with his many, many sins.”
Jamie nodded in resignation. “You do what you like—there’s none to blame you.”
She leaned to touch his arm, moved by his loyalty. “I’ll not be foolish—I’ll assess, and if I truly think he means to take me out of action again, I’ll disengage.”
He took another drink of tea from the chipped cup, and asked in a steady tone, “In the event you are seized, will you leave instructions for Saba?”
She had forgotten he had concerns other than her own foolishness, and loved him the more for his generosity. “Of course. If anything happens to me, she’ll be packed off to St. Michael’s as though she were a pearl of great price; my solemn promise on it.”
After an assignment—if they were not immediately called to another assignment, elsewhere—they would meet up with the grey-eyed man in the basement of an obscure church in London, to hold a debriefing, and be handsomely paid. They never met directly with anyone from the Home Office—or even other agents—because officially, no one knew she and Jamie existed.
He nodded. “Thank you. I wouldn’t be easy, else.”
Watching him in the gathering dusk, with Saba resting within the circle of his arms, she suddenly felt compelled to say, “I told him, Jamie—I told the mark about Scullabogue barn.”
There was a silence for a moment, and Jamie did not look at her. “I can’t speak of it, Nonie.”
Gently she continued, “I only said, because I thought you might want to tell Saba. It seemed—well, it seemed to help; to tell him of it. There was an easin’.”
He did not respond, but lowered his cheek next to Saba’s, and embraced her tenderly. That’s my cue, thought Nonie, and with a brisk movement, she set down her cup and rose to her feet. “I’ll sleep on the roof, then, and see you in the morning.”
But Jamie rose also, disclaiming. “No—I’ll sleep on the roof; you stay here with Saba.”
Nonie stared at him in amused astonishment, as he explained self-consciously, “We are going to wait until we are married.”
Smiling, she shook her head. “Lord; who are you, and what have you done with Jamie?”
But he stood his ground, embarrassed, but resolute. “It’s important that I do this right, Nonie; she deserves no less. And she’s so innocent—she’d be shocked, if I even made the attempt.”
But Nonie was no longer listening, staring at him without seeing, as she felt the blood drain from her head. “Blessed saints and angels.”
“What? What is it?” Jamie stepped forward to steady her, a hand under her arm as she sank back down to sit on the ground.
Pulling herself together, Nonie lifted her face, and said to Saba, who hovered over her in concern, “Jamil—” She struggled to make a translation, unable to put together a coherent sentence.
Slowly, Saba drew herself up, and took a step back, her expression shuttered.
“What?” Jamie looked from one to the other. “Nonie, tell me.”
Her eyes on Saba’s face, Nonie explained through stiff lips, “I think I’ve been tricked yet again, and this one’s a corker.” In exasperation, she bent her head, and pressed her fingertips to her temples. “Bloody hell, but I’ve never met someone who is so ahead of me at every turn; it shakes my faith, it does.”
Raising her face to him, she explained, “Saba is related to the mark, and Saba wanted you to know she was Christian—even though Fatima didn’t want her to say. And Jamil is—well, suffice it to say that Jamil is not what he seems, but is a holy man of some stripe. I—I think that it was not a Mughal wedding ceremony, but that instead I am well and truly married to the mark.”
Astonished, Jamie stared at her. “But—why would he marry you? Did he hope to gain some sort of control over you?”
“He wanted to take me to bed in good conscience,” she told him bluntly. “I am roundly an idiot.”
Jamie turned to Saba and took her hand, speaking in Italian. “Saba—you must tell me.” He made a gesture of reassurance that encompassed Nonie. “We will not tell anyone. But Nonie must know if she is married; it is not fair that she does not know—do you see? You must tell me, Is Jamil—”
“Si,” the girl interrupted him with a stricken look. “Jamil e prete.”
“Jamil’s a priest,” whispered Nonie, through dry lips. “Mother a’ mercy.”